Later this week President Donald Trump embarks on a 12-day tour of Asia – the longest trip to the region by a US president for 25 years, taking in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The President’s time in Asia will be dominated by the threat posed by North Korean nuclear missiles, uncertainty about his administration’s trade policies following his abrupt withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and carping for not staying an extra day for the East Asia Summit.
It would be better if Trump attended the EAS, but his trip should be judged on substance – in particular, the extent to which it reassures anxious allies, establishes a clear-eyed framework for managing competition with China, and lays out a vision for sustained US economic and diplomatic as well as military engagement in the region. He will have an opportunity to do this in a major speech in Vietnam.
What can we expect him to say?
A recent speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the Trump administration’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” provides some clues.
It will be music to the ears of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who hails from Western Australia and has been a consistent promoter of the term “Indo-Pacific”, to hear the US administration adopt it. There are important implications for Australia.
Tillerson highlighted the Indo-Pacific as “the most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century, and the vital importance of working to ensure it is “a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity” rather than allowing it to become “a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics” – the latter at least a clear pot-shot at China’s vaunted “Belt and Road” initiative and other mercantilist policies.
Building on the Bush administration’s historic strategic opening to India, he described the US and India as “global partners with growing strategic convergence”, pointing to their shared commitment to upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade. He made clear that the US looks to India to play a greater role in maintaining global security and stability.
Calling out China
Tillerson’s speech called out China in unusually blunt language for undermining the rules-based order in the region, subverting the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, and disadvantaging the US and its friends. The just-concluded Communist Party Congress gives little reason to expect China will change direction. On the contrary, President Xi Jinping emerged with even more power, and if anything his lengthy address signalled that Beijing intends to double down on domestic political, social and economic controls, military power, mercantilist trade and investment practices, and a coercive foreign policy.
Here’s where Australia comes in.
In response to these trends, Tillerson called for greater engagement and cooperation among Indo-Pacific democracies, who share the goals of “peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture”. He explicitly singled out Australia as a country that could work more closely with the US, India and Japan to address a range of challenges, including building greater security capacity in the region and expanding cooperation in other areas, such as awareness of what’s happening in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain, cybersecurity, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. He also dropped a heavy hint that India should readmit Australia to its annual Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan.
The Quadrilateral Dialogue
It is presumably no coincidence that just this week Julie Bishop signalled that Australia would be open to resuming the Quadrilateral Dialogue (which brought it together with the US, Japan, and India before Kevin Rudd bowed to Chinese pressure and pulled out).
Australia, as an Indian Ocean nation, a maritime democracy and a US ally, has a profound stake in these developments and should welcome the administration’s vision. Nonetheless, it also presents something of a challenge.
The last two Coalition governments worked hard to remove the impediments to a closer strategic partnership with India, lifting the pointless ban on uranium exports and pushing to boost economic ties and strengthen defence and security cooperation. Yet progress remains limited, with bilateral free trade talks stalled, the Adani coal mining project blocked and only a modest uptick in defence cooperation. There is a risk that Australia could be left behind as the US, India and Japan rapidly strengthen their strategic and other ties.
A good place to start would be to engage India in serious discussions about how the two countries might be able to coordinate their maritime surveillance efforts – and in time potentially even their anti-submarine warfare resources – in the eastern Indian Ocean.
Chinese warships and submarines are transiting the Malacca Strait and nearby maritime choke points in steadily increasing numbers. Both countries operate American-supplied P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, and their navies are stepping up bilateral exercises. Utilising facilities on Australia’s Cocos Island and India’s Andaman Islands, these assets would provide an ideal platform for Australia and India to work together towards a free and open Indo-Pacific.
(Image: The Australian Financial Review 2017, Steven Siewert)