Donald Trump’s election capped off a tumultuous 2016 for the globalist ideal. Many foreign policy experts have been sent into a tailspin over what the consequences of a protectionist world would be, especially an isolationist USA. While then candidate Trump promised to roll back America’s global role, his presidency is saying something different thus far. With the exception of the TPP withdrawal, the Trump administration has made several reassurances to alliances worldwide, Japan and NATO being two that stick out. This peculiar policy mix of denying globalist motives while embracing “core foreign assets” such as Japan, NATO, and the UK will make for an especially interesting future in the world’s most dynamic area, the Indo-Pacific.
It is no secret that Trump blames China for currency manipulation and dumping, claiming these tactics have cause the US trade woes. In his short time as President, Trump has, for the most part, backed up his talk. Global politicians were aghast as he made himself the first U.S. President to speak to the Taiwanese head of state, Tsai Ing-wen, since 1979. Furthermore, Trump deployed the USS Carl Vinson to the South China Sea, as the US Navy has started “routine patrols” in an effort to “maintain the global right of navigation.” Along with the proposed tariff on all incoming Chinese goods, Trump’s message is clear: the US does not intend to play a passive role in Asia as it has in earlier administrations; however, the details of how the Trump Administration will go about this are unclear. As Trump’s first moves seem to simply compensate for where he believes his predecessor fell short, we have yet to see a full-blown strategy rolled out. In fact, the United States has not had an official Pacific policy since 1998. It is at this juncture in which a new, bold policy could change the game in the Indo-Pacific region.
The policy which drives this new Indo-Pacific alliance is a taming of the burgeoning Chinese dragon. This drive to create a Cold War style encirclement policy, a push to surround a common enemy with numerous allies, has already been attempted, and failed with the stifling of TPP by President Trump. Although TPP would have been significantly beneficial to US leadership in the region in terms of soft power, its death may be a blessing in disguise. The reasoning behind this silver lining is the President’s effort to expand America’s military presence in Asia, as the United States’ presence in the region remains imperative with rising geopolitical tensions. The main framework for such a policy was outlined by AEI’s Michael Auslin in his latest book End of the Asian Century, in which he presents the “concentric triangles stratagem.” The core of the concentric triangles plan is to unite the major players of the Indo-Pacific over their fears of an increasingly aggressive China. This alliance would form an outer geographical triangle with the United States and Canada in the East, Japan and South Korea in the near West, Australia and New Zealand in the South, and India in the far West. An inner triangle consisting of Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand would provide for additional economic and geopolitical backing. Outside nations such as the United Kingdom and France would also be invited, as they too have their own economic and security interests at risk with a corner-cutting, aggressive China. Each nation has corporations that are finding it tougher these days to do business in China, as a fair amount of arm twisting and favor dealing is commanded by the local and national Communist Parties. And while foreign corporations may profit, it comes at a loss of trade secrets, which are nearly impossible to litigate in mainland China. It is also evident that China is a currency manipulator, something President Trump continually emphasizes. China devalued the Yuan in 2015, which shook global markets and has put foreign corporations at a distinct disadvantage as Chinese companies can undercut foreign competitor’s prices. Although it is an export centric nation, China’s should move past currency manipulation as it would show the global community that it is dedicated to fair trade and preparing itself for a future without an export centric economy.
With regards to security risks, the quagmire of the South China Sea and the Nine Dashed Line not only involves complex territorial claims from seven nations, but China’s refusal to recognize freedom of navigation rights in international waters also poses a threat to global trade. An additional territorial dispute lies in the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islands are administered by Japan but claimed by China, and the two nations have stepped up aggressive military maneuvers in the area in recent years. However, geopolitical threats may not be where China is the most dangerous and aggressive. Cyber threats have become increasingly relevant within the decade, and China is at the forefront of state-sponsored hacking of foreign corporations and governments. In the fourth quarter of 2012, China accounted for forty-one percent of the sources for all reported cyber attacks and hackings. Sensitive targets include the US Government and the American defense industry, as well as a plethora of government agencies, which have reported hackings originating in China. Additionally, the plans for America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter were copied and stolen from a Chinese address. However, Beijing denies all wrongdoing and will protest any international investigation into the issue. Finally, the issue of North Korea looms as the most dangerous to the entire region, as it has been confirmed that Kim Jong Un is in possession of nuclear ballistic missiles that may be in range of the west coast of the United States. All of these issues of economic and national security constitute the environment for a united front that has not been seen in the Indo-Pacific’s history since the Second World War.
China itself, while gaining partners through trade, has had a hard time making friends and forging close political ties in the region. With its program of Smile Diplomacy bearing little fruit, it is likely that Beijing’s reaction to a complex alliance system positioned against it will not be a positive one, especially as its economic growth slows. It is quite possible China will step up its unprofessional and aggressive actions in light of seeing itself encircled. So what is the point of this alliance if it will only lead us closer to war? The answer to this is simple: it is better to stand together than stand alone. Regardless of the enrichment and growth of the Indo-Pacific region, political tensions have only risen with the raised confidence of governments, with the advent of improved economic performance, and bloated military budgets.
While the triangular system does not include a multilateral Free Trade Agreements or foreign aid packages for now, it leaves the window open for them as a NATO-type military alliance would deepen political ties between all participating nations. This would also give the United States a further edge in its pseudo cold war with China, while smaller nations like Singapore would receive treaty-reinforced defense guarantees. Additionally, developing nations like Indonesia would be able draw themselves into the international community on a greater scale. Trade would flow more freely between the allied nations, as a sense of trust would be built between governments. Overall, a more unified and responsive Indo-Pacific community is the key to keeping the Asian miracle alive.