Several noteworthy events, which have occurred in the past few weeks, bear witness to the continuing changes in the Indo-Pacific region’s political map.
This process was long in the making, but its pace increased substantially after the election of Donald Trump as the US President, whose key campaign slogan, “America first,” is often misinterpreted as confirmation and even reinforcement of Washington’s old ambitions to single-handedly dominate global politics and the world economy.
The slogan most likely reflected an actual wish, expressed by Americans, to limit the US involvement in world squabbles and to focus instead on resolving an ever increasing number of internal problems. Those who express such views are “neo-isolationists,” who support the US return to its original premise of their country being viewed “as a city upon a hill,” which leads the world by example.
The “neo-isolationists” think, with good reason, that their country (despite its short history) possesses enough positive energy to be worthy of display during the “projects in governance” fair.
On the contrary, their ideologic opponents and political adversaries known as “neo-conservatives” (essentially descendants of Trotskyism), view the USA as a stronghold, whose aim is to spread transatlantic values by force. Incidentally, these values bear no resemblance to Europe’s real values.
At first, Trump’s election victory caused “neo-conservatives” to panic, as some of them attempted to solve the problem of “how to reach the Canadian border as quickly as possible.” They subsequently changed their mind by remaining in the US and seemingly restoring their influence on the country’s foreign policy decisions.
Only such a scenario could explain the contradictory messages originating in Washington. Information about their military withdrawal from the Middle East and their readiness to do so, in principle, on the Korean Peninsula suddenly began circulating. However, several days later, the President announced that these issues are viewed differently by means of his “diplomacy via Twitter.”
Still the somewhat “neo-isolationist” stance of the country, which remains one of the foundations of the current world order, naturally began making headway faster in all of its directions. This explains the growing importance of The Indo-Pacific, where any significant changes are generated by a game of politics, whose main participants are the USA, China, Japan and India.
The latest noticeable game maneuvers include an unplanned informal meeting between the leaders of India and China in Wuhan, the revival of the project to establish a tripartite free trade zone involving PRC, Japan and South Korea, and the Sino-US negotiations dealing with their bilateral commercial and economic relations. All three events happened within the space of two weeks (from the end of April to the middle of May).
During the same time period negotiations between the South Korean and DPRK leaders took place in Panmunjom, which can be viewed as an interim step, taken by second-rate players, in the local game on the Korean Peninsula. The main participants (the USA and China) are in their “unveiling stage” as they become directly involved in the game.
We have previously addressed various aspects of the meeting between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping held on 27-28 April in Wuhan. Discussion about these talks continue in PRC as well as India. Familiar imagery is used when asking the ever relevant key question “Will the dragon and the elephant dance the tango?” If the positive trends in the relationship between the two Asian giants, set in Wuhan, were to continue, they could influence the overall nature and direction of the game involving The Indo-Pacific.
In such a scenario, the US idea to create an anti-Chinese coalition of the “Four,” with India as its key member, would be futile.
However, it is far from sensible to underestimate the problems that this positive trend in the Sino-Indian relationship faces. Aside from territorial disputes, the tensions in relations between India and the Chinese ally, Pakistan remain one of the key issues.
Nevertheless, there are attempts to find a glimmer of hope in the conflict between India and Pakistan. This search is spurred on by the improving situation on the Korean Peninsula.
There is a possibility that political relations between China and another potential member of the “Four,” Japan, improve. The main stimulus in this case is not only Beijing’s overtures of friendship towards Tokyo (as well as towards New Delhi), but also Japan’s commercial and economic problems with its key ally, the USA.
Washington and Tokyo (the first and third largest economies in the world) continue to drift apart over their differences in views on the developmental prospects of global economic ties. Trump’s administration (quite in the spirit of “America first”) aims to resolve problems in the context of bilateral relations with the world. Abe’s administration, on the other hand, views Japan as a participant in multilateral economic arrangements.
China can relate to such a view, as it has taken over Washington’s role of spearheading globalization. Chinese attempts to revive the tripartite free trade zone project involving PRC, Japan and South Korea as well as bilateral Sino-Japanese official meetings are quite noteworthy.
Hence the meeting between China’s Prime Minister and South Korea’s President which took place in Tokyo from 9 to 11 of May. This official visit to Japan by such high-ranking Chinese and South Korean dignitaries was the first of its kind in 8 years. An intention to support the creation of two free trade zones, one for PRC, Japan and South Korea and the other for the 10 Oceania countries as well as PRC, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand was voiced at the meeting.
As far as the Sino-Japanese summit is concerned, the participants agreed to establish an expert commission to study the New Silk Road project and open communication channels between the military bodies involved in order to avoid misunderstandings in the air or at sea.
Participants at the Tokyo negotiations stayed within limits drawn by their mutual distaste towards protectionism and commitment to globalization of the world economy.
The positive trends, set in Wuhan and Tokyo, are especially noticeable when viewed in the context of the stalled decisions aimed at resolving various commercial and economic problems between the US and PRC. Such attempts were made during the meeting between the US envoy and their Chinese counterparts, held in Beijing on 3-4 May. The Washington Post noted that the talks ended in an exchange of hard-line (and barely fulfillable) terms.
The current US administration remains an official culprit responsible for initiating the trade war (not only with its main geopolitical opponent but also with key allies in Europe and Asia).
Still, it is important to remember that, over the years, Washington’s motive for implementing protective measures against not only China but even its expensive allies grew. Together these countries outcompete the world leader in trade by a significant amount of $800 billion each year, with China’s share equaling $370 billion. This long-term negative tendency is the chief explanation as to why Trump armed himself with the slogan “America first.”
However, this does not mean that the US President’s approach to resolving the problems in US relations with external partners is uncompromising. The setbacks in Sino-American negotiations in Beijing are most likely not indicative of their complete failure, as the economic interests of these leading nations are deeply intertwined.
All the aforementioned events in The Indo-Pacific demonstrate that the global player’s allies and opponents are starting to adjust to the new realities in response to America’s “neo-isolationist” message. Still, this message is not clearly formulated and contradicts Trump’s intention to insure the US possesses military potential of global proportions.
Perhaps the current president is not at all concerned about the contradictory nature of his underlying ideas, since behind the focus on military build-up still lies the aim of solving internal problems. After all, the military industrial complex is one the main employers in the US.
Then again, from the author’s point of view, the latest events in The Indo-Pacific hint at first signs of a reciprocal message being formulated by Asia to Washington, stating “Fellows! Wouldn’t you agree that the time has come to take back your military toys and join our economic projects? There are many interesting things in your “city upon a hill.” But, sadly, it’s not your positive energy that you’re trying to impose on us using weapons.”
Such a message will probably be received by many in the US favorably.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region issues, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”