President Donald Trump’s first extensive Asia tour has had its unusual share of comics for a head of state, but he has boldly crossed lines, built bridges of friendship with heads of various nations and enjoyed the warmth of the moment in immense measure.
Questions remain as to how much he has achieved in his mission to seek and reduce trade deficits vis-a-vis China and other nations in the region even as he pushed this theme with vehemence. India might have earned some brownie points from this visit, also in the changing of a script from the age-old ‘Asia-Pacific’ term — as in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping of nations — to a dramatic presentation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ nomenclature.
This could mean little, but certainly and hopefully not too little in the long run. The fear, of course, remains that the usage of this nomenclature might eventually remain boxed in with the Indian media alone. As far as one can see, this may not be the term that would be used in South Korea, China, Vietnam or even Thailand and Sri Lanka. We have to admit reality and that is that India is not a country that people, particularly in this zone, are fond of. Enough of India.
Trump, on his part, seemed upbeat about the effects of his multi-nation visit, stressing, “After my tour of Asia, all countries dealing with us on trade know that the rules have changed.” Amid all the warmth, he has stated as much to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, built new bridges with the Philippines’ controversial president Rodrigo Duterte, and praised one and all for the “good work” they were doing.
All these go well with the usual style of American presidents, though Trump has, true to his style, sugar-coated this in a more humane fashion. His undoing was the group photo session that marked the Asean event, struggling himself with hands stretched on both sides.
Essentially a businessman-turned President not used to protocols of public events, this might as well be pardoned — rather than going to the other extreme of suspecting that he has lost his sense of mental balance. Notably, Trump’s Asia tour took place at a time when his popularity ratings have allegedly gone down to around 30 per cent though the president himself claims it still is around a decent 50 per cent.
Fittingly for the moment, the Trump visit marked the resurrection of the quadrilateral grouping on the sidelines of the Asean event. The grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia can be effectively turned into a formidable force considering their huge economic and military clout. China was quick to smell a rat and has expressed its concern as to why it was excluded from such a grouping.
Arguably, therein lies the game. The first meeting held by the four nations laid eminent stress on aspects of free trade and facilitating unhindered navigation by global shipping companies and others through waters of the South China and East China Seas. These are areas where China is increasingly exercising controls and setting up Naval bases much to the discomfiture of and threat to nations in the region big and small.
Trump skipping the last session — on East Asia — too may have left a lesson to learn for China.
Collective resistance at Chinese usurpation and joint surveillance of the seas by the four countries of the eastern hemisphere should hopefully make a big difference to the present somewhat unchallenged scenario.
At the same time, India seems increasingly to be getting caught in the US geopolitical games in the region aimed at checkmating China. The cautious steps India took in recent times so as not to rub China the wrong way had not been reciprocated in substantial measure by the red nation that is now at the height of its military might.
India on its own is in no position to challenge China due to the relative defence strengths of the two sides. What India hopes is to balance this might earliest by 2030 — which is 12 years away from now; time enough for the dragon to maim the slow-paced buffalo.
The present push for the quadrilateral grouping that is often interpreted as a hedge against the Chinese ambitions in the geopolitical region could help most nations of this region to have the freedom of choice. A boost to trade relations among these four powerful and economically strong nations could be advantageous if only there is the will, the drive and the mechanisms to make best use of the emerging situations. Trump’s first Asia visit has signalled such an opportunity for this neighbourhood.