Trump gives glimpse of ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy to counter China


US president’s message muddied by his praise for Beijing


Demetri Sevastopulo


Donald Trump began his visit to Vietnam on Friday saying he was honoured to be in the “heart of the Indo-Pacific”. Earlier in the week in Tokyo, he celebrated his “first visit to the Indo-Pacific region” as US president.


Some in his audience in Da Nang were quick to brush off the formulation as the mangled words of a jet-lagged president.


But Mr Trump’s repeated use of the phrase during his five-nation Asia tour was no slip of the tongue. It was a calculated effort to unveil his nascent strategy for Asia, which entails increased cooperation between the US, Japan, Australia and India aimed at countering the ever-expanding clout that China is wielding in Asia.


“I’ve had the honour of sharing our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Mr Trump told delegates at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Da Nang, Vietnam. The US Congress had approved the first deployment of an American warship to the Pacific in 1817, he added. “We have been friends, partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific for a long, long time, and we will be friends, partners and allies for a long time.”


Yet while Mr Trump dwelt on US history in the region, he ​gave scant detail about how “Indo-Pacific” policy would be implemented, or how it differed from Barack Obama’s “Asia pivot”. ​In a speech that was a​ ​resurrection of ​his hallmark trade themes, ​he said he would not tolerate the “chronic trade abuses”​ by Asian nations and would “always . . . put America first”.


His speech came as ministers from Japan, Australia, Canada and other nations were in Da Nang trying to craft a new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was signed by 12 nations last year, before Mr Trump pulled the US out of the deal — which had been the economic pillar of the “pivot” — on day one in office.


Euan Graham, an Asia expert at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said the speech changed the view that the region should not worry as long as Mr Trump stuck to his script. The US president was sending his country “down a lonely road”.


“What’s striking is he gave an unambiguous, explicit rejection of multilateral trade liberalisation and delivered the message in a forum, Apec, for that very purpose,” said Mr Graham. “Apec has long outgrown its trade goals, but it helped to define a trans-Pacific region, the Asia-Pacific, as a viable concept, inclusive of the US.


“Asians and Australians may therefore see this as overturning the altar in the regional temple of free trade. It speaks of a desire to turn back the clock, pre-1989. If the TPP minus US goes ahead on the sidelines of Apec, the US will appear economically isolated even from its allies and partners.”


Evan Medeiros, a former top Asia adviser to Mr ​Obama, said the prospects for the Indo-Pacific strategy were uncertain, particularly after​ the way Mr Trump handled his visit to Beijing. “It’s not a US idea, but a Japanese one. It has no serious economic component, relies conceptually on an ambivalent India, and looks like China containment to many Asian leaders,” he said. “And, after Trump’s extreme flattery of China this week, his Asia strategy is even less clear.”


Before the speech, Amy Searight, a former Pentagon Asia official, said it would be “terrific” if Mr Trump signalled that the US would “support the liberal trade order which has underpinned the economic rise of so many countries in the region, including Vietnam”. But she said he was “unlikely to disavow the economic nationalism and the focus on eliminating bilateral trade deficits that has marked the trade agenda of his administration”.


The Indo-Pacific strategy emerged last month when Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, gave a speech where he praised India, while accusing China of “undermining the international rules-based order” and undertaking “provocative actions” in the South China Sea.


Tanvi Madan, an India expert at the Brookings Institution, said there were elements of continuity between Mr Obama’s Asia pivot and Mr Trump’s strategy, but also key differences, “including the term Indo-Pacific, the explicit concern expressed about China . . . and a greater emphasis on democratic partners, particularly India”.


While Mr Tillerson was explicit in his criticism, Mr Trump was more muted about China in ​Da Nang. For example, when he said the US would “no longer tolerate the audacious theft of intellectual property​” — a comment clearly aimed at China​ — ​ he did not mention ​the country by name.


Some experts said his strategy was clouded by the way he had praised Xi Jinping, China’s president, during his visit to Beijing, including calling him a “very special man” to his face.


​“Though he didn’t single out China by name for criticism, the references to IP theft and state capitalism were unmistakably directed at Beijing,” said Mr Graham. “Those include fair, overdue criticisms that should resonate. But the power of that message will be undermined by the unscripted lionising he lavished on China in Beijing.”


Although Mr Trump signalled to the leaders at Apec that he​ ​​would take America down a ​very ​different path, the US president continued one stalwart tradition​: he donned the obligatory Apec shirt at the forum dinner.