Whither the United States in the Indo-Pacific?

US President Donald Trump gestures during a news conference in New Delhi, India, 25 February 2020 (Picture: REUTERS/Al Drago).

Author: J Stapleton Roy, Wilson Center

The US approach to the Indo-Pacific is a work in progress. Over the past three years, the Trump administration has outlined a strategic concept that links the Indian Ocean region with the Asia Pacific. Expanding the policy focus in this fashion not only emphasises the importance of the Indian Ocean region, but brings India into the administration’s policy framework in which China is seen as the principal strategic competitor of the United States.

Yet, President Donald Trump’s freewheeling refusal to be bound within this policy framework has rendered the Indo-Pacific concept of limited utility to the US government. It is misleading to speak in terms of Trump administration policies and strategies as opposed to attitudes and tendencies.

This is reflected in the President’s preference for bilateral over multilateral agreements, his hostility to trade deficits, his conviction that US allies should bear a greater share of the mutual defence burden, his predilection for summit diplomacy and his readiness to criticise allies while cultivating relationships with authoritarian leaders.

Still, the US Congress demonstrated its support for the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific approach by passing the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 and the BUILD Act, which created the US International Development Finance Corporation. These acts were passed with strong bipartisan support, reflecting the negative sentiment in Congress towards China. In addition, the Trump administration showed renewed interest in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

In the South China Sea, driven in large measure by China’s provocative transformation of rocks and shoals in the Spratlys into sizeable artificial islands, the Trump administration showed a preference for freedom of navigation operations and joint military exercises over diplomacy. This kept the South China Sea as a potential flash point for naval incidents between China and …continue reading