Trump’s ‘Indo-Pacific Dream’ Stumbles – But China Alone Won’t Fill the Void
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump returned to Washington after a marathon tour of Asia. His trip spanned two multilateral summits, five countries, and set an important record: It was the longest Asia trip undertaken by any U.S. president in 25 years.
Trump’s trip was a remarkable opportunity to restore to Asia the rare leader-level time and attention so often trained on the Middle East and Europe. And yet, although time was for once abundant, strategy was absent, and the trip was largely a missed opportunity.
A review of Trump’s time in Asia reveals three key points.
First, Trump announced a new initiative — the “Indo-Pacific dream” — as the centerpiece of U.S. efforts in Asia. The term “Indo-Pacific” intentionally departs from the “Asia-Pacific” to elevate the role of India in the region’s affairs as a counterbalance to China. The still-nascent Indo-Pacific dream appears to be an attempt to organize states in resisting a China-led regional order.
Second, the dream was almost immediately undercut by the president’s own missteps, promptly running into the buzzsaw of Trump’s “America First” nationalism. If Trump’s Indo-Pacific dream is motivated by competition with China, then he made a number of profound mistakes on his Asia tour. He widened the void of American leadership in Asia by once again denouncing the trade agreements Asian states value, flattering the authoritarians they fear, and criticizing the allies his strategy requires.
Third, even despite Trump’s missteps, it is premature to argue that America “lost” and China “won” in Asia. Amid Trump’s ambiguous Indo-Pacific visions and President Xi Jinping’s well-received APEC address, Asian states made their own plays. The revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Quad (an initiative involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) suggests there are plenty in Asia hesitant to endorse a China-led order. Even as Washington steps back and the Indo-Pacific dream stumbles, other states will vie alongside China to step forward and shape a regional order that adjusts to the absence of U.S. leadership — a new normal of Trump’s own making.
What’s in a Name? Trump’s Indo-Pacific Dream
The term “Indo-Pacific” dates back to nineteenth-century ethnography and taxonomy, and entered strategic texts about a century later. By the early 21st century, “Indo-Pacific” began to see greater usage in military writings and then diplomatic speeches in India, Japan, and Australia. These states were concerned about the rise of China and saw the arc of maritime affairs stretching from Japan to the Arabian Sea as a unified theater of strategic interest. The concept eventually found occasional mention in official U.S. writings, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton using it in her 2011 Foreign Policy piece that signaled the start of the U.S. pivot to Asia.
Under the Trump administration, the term has found more frequent expression. According to the White House, a stated goal of Trump’s Asia tour was to promote the Indo-Pacific, and indeed Trump used the phrase at every stop on his trip. Top administration officials, including the secretaries of state and defense and the national security advisor, have used it repeatedly as well.
With Trump’s addition of the word “dream” to the term Indo-Pacific at APEC, something has changed. What was under Obama a simple geographic term with political overtones appears to have been dramatically elevated into something far more significant — a major new U.S. initiative.
But what exactly does this “Indo-Pacific dream” entail? So far, the Trump administration has offered no precise outline, but a review of Trump’s APEC address suggests that it emphasizes sovereignty, economic reciprocity, security, and freedom from dependence and domination. While these may be valuable objectives, they do not constitute a strategy.
At least for now, the Indo-Pacific dream is less a strategy and more a euphemism for resisting a China-led Asia. Indeed, the anti-China focus of the term was clear in Trump’s APEC address, where he stated that his new initiative will involve “many dreams and many roads,” a rhetorical swipe aimed at Xi’s “China dream” and his One Belt, One Road program. Trump’s promises to seek an Asia free from dependence and domination were also knocks on China’s economic power and assumed hegemonic ambitions.
In concrete terms, if the Indo-Pacific dream actually came to fruition, it would likely entail military cooperation and bilateral economic agreements with Asian states stretching from India to Japan. The goal of these measures would be to push back on Chinese blue-water ambitions and economic statecraft.
A Dream Deferred
Trump admittedly made some progress on his Indo-Pacific dream by elevating the term and by agreeing to relaunch the Quad after more than a decade. Those achievements, however, are largely overshadowed by Trump’s missteps on his Asia tour: His harsh language on trade, criticism of allies, and flattery of authoritarians will complicate any attempt at mobilizing the region to resist a China-led Asia.
Trump’s unnecessary stridency on trade was perhaps his largest mistake. Asian states cannot cooperate with the United States against China on either strategic or economic matters if they constantly fear U.S. tariffs or economic retaliation. Although no Asian country expected Trump to renounce his protectionism, it was imprudent to so pugnaciously broadcast his “America First” ideology. His fiery rhetoric was better suited to rallies in Pennsylvania and Michigan than to diplomacy within the region. Indeed, in his APEC address, Trump taunted an attendee, condemned the WTO, assailed multilateral trade, and vowed that the United States would “no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses.”
Although much of Trump’s APEC speech implicitly targeted China, it also unnerved U.S. allies and partners. Most run large trade surpluses with the United States, and some undoubtedly thought the criticisms of China applied to their own economies. By defining fair trade as the absence of deficits, the Trump administration gave surplus-running Asian economies little reason to work with Washington on trade, and good reason to question the credibility of U.S. commitments — both on economics and security.
Trump also harshly criticized America’s own allies in the region — the lynchpin of any Indo-Pacific strategy — on trade imbalances at a time when these same alliances are being tested by North Korea. In Japan, Trump complained that “the United States has suffered massive trade deficits with Japan for many, many years,” and that “our trade with Japan is not fair and it’s not open.” He rudely instructed Japanese CEOs to “try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over,” though he also thanked some for building new U.S. plants.
In South Korea, Trump attacked the trade agreement between Seoul and Washington as “a deal that frankly has been quite unsuccessful and not very good for the United States.” There, as in Tokyo, the president even linked American arms sales directly to these concerns, saying that “for us, [an arms deal] means jobs; it means reducing our trade deficit.” To an uncharitable observer, the combination of trade condemnations with a push for job-creating arms sales might have resembled a shakedown — not alliance management.
Finally, Trump’s flattery of Xi in Beijing and his unwillingness to publicly push him on stated U.S. priorities — especially trade and North Korea — damaged the Indo-Pacific dream. While in China, Trump was silent on trade and appeared to blame the United States rather than China for the trade deficit. He largely waited until he left Beijing for APEC to raise any serious criticisms. If Trump would not stand up to Beijing over major U.S. interests, Asian states had little reason to believe he would stand up for them.
On North Korea, Trump refrained from forcing the issue publicly, opting instead to praise Xi. Even in private, according to Tillerson, Trump’s message to Xi was “you’re a strong man, I’m sure you can solve this for me.” Trump’s formulation — that North Korea is an American problem that China should solve — plays into Beijing’s belief that North Korea gives it leverage with Washington. In the past, China’s leaders have been quite clear that they see North Korea in such terms. By confirming that view, Trump gave Xi even less incentive to assist with the North Korean nuclear problem and Asian observers even less reason to trust the United States to back them in disputes with Beijing.
As America Retreats, Others Contest Chinese Leadership
A number of commentaries on Trump’s Asia tour concluded that the United States was “losing” and China was “winning” in Asia as a result of the president’s rhetoric. In short order, they suggested, Beijing would fill the void that Washington had left across the region.
Filling that void was certainly on Xi’s mind. His APEC speech immediately followed Trump’s and provided a marked contrast. In sweetly reassuring language, Xi promised to defend free trade, fight protectionism, and strengthen global governance. Tellingly, he received more applause from the assembled attendees than Trump did.
Xi’s generous words, however, have not always been accompanied by conciliatory policies. China’s military build-up, its use of economic statecraft against its neighbors, and its willingness to break international rules in the South China Sea have left many Asian states unwilling to embrace a China-led Asia. As America retreats, these states are not standing by but increasingly stepping up to contest the region’s future in both the economic and security realms.
One stunning example of this on the economic front was the revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an implicit rebuke to the United States, especially since it occurred while Trump was still in the region. The agreement — a major Obama-era initiative — was a buffer against China’s rise that was described by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter as more strategically valuable than having another carrier battle group in Asia. Thought dead after Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, it was resurrected on the sidelines of APEC when the 11 remaining members of the pact reached an “agreement in principle” to move forward even without U.S. involvement — a sign that not all wish to cede the region’s economic future to Beijing, nor do they wish to embrace American trade bilateralism.
On the security front, another important sign that the region was stepping up was the revival of the Quad on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit after a decade of hibernation. The loose grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is not an alliance or an “Asian NATO,” but rather a meeting of diplomatic officials. The initiative involves the United States and broadly supports Trump’s Indo-Pacific objective, but its return demonstrates something else, too. Past hesitancy on the part of some members, notably India and Australia, appears to be gradually abating in favor of a growing desire to engage amid China’s rise — even as Washington appears less reliable.
Beyond these headline-grabbing developments are an array of others that flew below the radar. Increasingly, Asian states are building ties to each other as a bulwark against a China-led Asia. South Korea, fearing overreliance on the Chinese economy, just launched a “New Southern Policy” to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia. Japan and India are planning an infrastructure initiative to offer states an alternative to One Belt, One Road funding. Meanwhile, a rich network of bilateral and ‘minilateral’ relationships involving varying combinations of Australia, Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam, among others, are providing an alternative locus for strategic cooperation against the backdrop of perceived U.S. disengagement.
Whether these initiatives will succeed in shaping the regional order as China rises remains an open question. What is clear is that, even as the United States isolates itself, Asian states are not inert bystanders to Asia’s future. In their own ways, big and small, they are struggling to assert their own vision. Trump’s Asia policy has done serious harm, but working with these states whenever possible can mitigate at least some of the damage and will do more to promote an Indo-Pacific dream than “America First” unilateralism.
Rush Doshi is a PhD Candidate at Harvard University and a pre-doctoral fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies.