Mixed mes­sages at Asean sum­mit

In­dia has rea­son to cheer, but Trump is as con­fus­ing as al­ways

Hindustan Times (Gurgaon) - - Comment -

The par­tic­i­pat­ing gov­ern­ments at this year’s Asean sum­mit had one un­der­ly­ing in­ter­est in mind: To de­ter­mine the way United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump han­dles China. Would he be hard? Would he be soft? Would he tread the mid­dle path? They will be dis­ap­pointed as Mr Trump’s state­ments about China re­mained as full of con­tra­dic­tions as they have been in the past. Most re­ports in­di­cate that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has wit­nessed a hard­en­ing of US pos­ture to­wards China. But Mr Trump’s state­ments gave no in­di­ca­tion of this. He spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pa­cific re­gion”, but pro­posed ac­tion against coun­tries who ran a trade sur­plus with the US. These are ob­vi­ously con­tra­dic­tory stances. The Trump vi­sion of Asia is pro­tec­tion­ist, mil­i­tar­ily weak, iso­la­tion­ist and ad­van­ta­geous to China.

In­dia can be pleased that Mr Trump has adopted the phrase “Indo-Pa­cific” to de­scribe the con­ti­nent’s geopo­lit­i­cal mi­lieu. This seems to re­flect the US pres­i­dent’s be­lief that In­dia is an im­por­tant part of any Asia power game. How­ever, con­vert­ing the use of the phrase into an ef­fec­tive grand strat­egy may take a long time. The de­ci­sion to bring four of Asia’s demo­cratic regimes into a quadri­lat­eral meet­ing was an ex­am­ple of such sym­bolic ac­tion, though hold­ing out the pos­si­bil­ity of fu­ture co­her­ence. It seems likely that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will be tak­ing a harder line on China in fu­ture. How­ever, Mr Trump has gone about mov­ing in this di­rec­tion in his usual zigzag way, si­mul­ta­ne­ously com­mu­ni­cat­ing his ad­mi­ra­tion for the Chi­nese strong­man and his un­hap­pi­ness at the lat­ter’s trade poli­cies.

Bei­jing’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to have a new world or­der based on “China’s val­ues” has pro­voked a strong re­ac­tion from other coun­tries, with In­dia lead­ing the pack. How­ever, the US and its web of al­liances is the cor­ner­stone of any counter to China. And it was a mix of mil­i­tary and eco­nomic re­la­tions that kept this web in place. Mr Trump is de­mol­ish­ing the eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship. The mil­i­tary one re­mains paral­ysed by the North Korean cri­sis. The world needs sta­bil­ity and that would be eas­ier to sus­tain if the US clar­i­fied its views on China.

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