Two regional trade strategies -- one from the United States and the other from China, reflecting competing geostrategic visions for Asia -- clashed last week in Vietnam where Asia-Pacific leaders met to talk business.
In a defiant address at the forum for 21 Pacific Rim member economies in Da Nang, the coastal city where the first American troops landed in 1965 to protect the nearby U.S. air base as the Vietnam war began to escalate, President Donald Trump repeatedly used the term Indo-Pacific -- instead of calling the region by its traditional name Asia-Pacific -- to outline America's new strategy for Asia.
Trump's vision, intended to usher India into the group of APEC nations as a counterweight to China, will be on a collision course with President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road, a signature Chinese initiative to connect the middle kingdom with Central and Southeast Asian countries.
Japan originally conceived the idea of Asian democracies joining forces against an assertive communist China in 2007. The concept made its way into a joint statement by Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi this year. India, Japan and Vietnam have long-standing border and maritime disputes with Beijing. China's bold foreign policy has sent them all scurrying for new alliances to protect their interests.
America denies it seeks to put China into a box, insisting its new game plan is just a recognition of India's growing importance toAmerica's security and prosperity. However, in an indirect jab at China, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month described India asAmerica's ideal reliable partner to defend "unhindered access to the planet's shared spaces, be they on land, at sea, or in cyberspace."
India Achieves Symbolic Success
Delhi is eager to forge closer ties with America as well as Japan and Vietnam to fortify its defenses against China, which crushed Indiain a short war in 1962. Indeed, it may have already achieved a symbolic success. In its latest standoff with China in June, Indiasuccessfully scuttled Beijing's attempt to build a road near the disputed Bhutanese border, showing off its resolve to stand its ground.Japan supported Delhi during India's recent blowup with China.
No doubt, a successful realignment in Asia pitting India, Japan and Vietnam against China will make Beijing sober. But history indicates it will require shaking off Asia's mindset for this idea to take hold.
Two underlying currents influence the Asians when they deal with America: their past unpleasant experience with colonial Europe and the Vietnam War. Many Asians see America as the reincarnation of imperial Europe.
The Chinese and the Indians find common ground on Europe's hegemony, a sore point that led India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to bond with New China, shunning courtship with America. China can use this reality to its advantage to keep its neighbors from joining hands with a distant United States.
Last year, after blasting America, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte extended friendship toward China, despite having maritime disputes with Beijing. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India balked at continuing naval exercises with the United States after protests from China and Indian communists. In September, Xi told Modi, who has tilted toward the United States departing from India's nonaligned tradition, that "healthy, stable" China-India ties were necessary. All this reflects strong desires among many Asians to work together.
Is U.S. Reliable Partner?
Beijing may also seek to exploit fears in Asia about Washington's reliability as a partner, pointing to the fact that the Americans packed up and left South Vietnam in 1975. What will the United States do in the event of a rematch with China?
One clue came from Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this year discounted America as Europe's partner going forward. She commented after Trump bashed Berlin for trade deficits, exactly the way he slapped Japan and South Korea last week.
India has had bitter experiences, too. After an initial courtship, Delhi painfully watched the Obama administration drifting away toBeijing to overcome the 2008 global economic crisis. This created a perception of an emerging U.S.-China G-2 alliance, leading many Indians to wonder whether America considered India's rise was in U.S. strategic interest.
Japan has its doubts as well. During his re-election campaign in September, Abe told voters that Japan could no longer ensure the survival of the nation, its people and its heirs by putting its faith on allies whose commitments were uncertain and whose leaders were more concerned with rallies, opinion polls and the next election than their obligations to Japan.
America must balance between India and China, at least for now, to deal with North Korea and to keep bilateral trade going. But Indiawants to be assured the United States will not favor China as a more reliable partner. Washington, too, needs to be sure it can rely onDelhi to help manage difficult global issues, including free navigation in the Indian Ocean, a vital waterway many fear China wants to control.
The Chinese hold mixed views of Trump's new posture. The official line is to dismiss it as an old concept, but they know it could complicate their geostrategic plan, given it is backed by Japan's economic muscle, India's growth momentum and Australia's Chinafears.