Mixed messages at Asean summit
India has reason to cheer, but Trump is as confusing as always
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.