April 2024

Can Indo-Pacific play its trump card?

The very prospect of Donald Trump’s re-election to the American presidency is shaking the world.

To his opponents at home, he is a convicted fraudster, sexual abuser and incompetent leader with little commitment to democratic principles and rule-of-law. For allies abroad he is a potential danger, threatening to rip apart long-standing security arrangements. 

In Europe, this includes abandoning Ukraine and pulling out of NATO.  In the Indo-Pacific, he imagines withdrawing American troops from South Korea, possibly Japan, which would collapse America’s predominant role as security guarantor of the region.

Only for two nations could a Trump presidency unfold as a godsend: China and Russia,

The nightmare scenario for European and Asian leaders is that Trump will make deals with Beijing and Moscow, thus creating an isolationist America anddoing the enemy’s work by upending and weakening the current rules-based international order.

Asia, therefore, now needs to confront a slow-burning truth.

This is not just about Donald Trump. Hemay be portrayed as a once-in-a-blue-moon figure, but he is a product of modern democracy with all its fake news, social media, populism and conspiracy theories.  He also represents political decay within liberal democratic system.

The traditional establishment might cry foul play, but it has done nothing to reform those institutions that allow divisive, populist figures to win at the ballot box. America’s electoral college that delivered Trump to the White House on a minority vote is one such out-dated institution.

With its much-cited insistence on not wishing to pick sides in super-power rivalry, the Indo-Pacific needs to take into account this stark reality.

Donald Trump must be seen as a catalyst towards forging greater Indo-Pacific independence with more of its own responsibility for security.

In this respect, the region would be wise to take a lead from Europe, which is now accepting that the US may no longer be a dependable ally and security guarantor.

Whether or not he wins the White House, Trump has thrown down this challenge. The Indo-Pacific now has to respond.

When Trump pulled America out of the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership, the region resurrected the free-trade agreement under the eleven-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Thisnew incarnation might not have the muscle of an American-led trade body, but it is up and running.

A second Trump presidency would question other regional arrangements.

For example, wouldTrump adhere to Biden’s expensive AUKUS submarine and technology alliance with Australia and the UK? Would the United States continue to champion the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan?  

How would Trump handle Narendra Modi’s policy of multi-alignment and India’s continuing close relationship with Russia? Might Modi begin to wonder if he was wise to cast non-aligned India into such a closely defined US-led alliance?

Additionally, would a Trump administration continue to invest in building security relationships with the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia?

Another key question is. how would Trump deal with South Korea and Japan, two lynchpins of American Indo-Pacific security?Crucially, if the would-be president threatens to end support, at what stage would these two governments decide to build nuclear weapons and what would a new nuclear arms race mean for global stability?

Only very few efforts are being made to counter these very relevant scenarios raised by the looming prospect ofa Trump presidency.

Japan and Australia have signed a handful of bilateral defenceinitiatives, as have Australia and the Philippines. India is helping Vietnam, and so on.

But none of that comes close to what is needed: the forging of a regional body that can rise through the changing tapestry of geopolitics and the unpredictability of American elections.

Donald Trump was elected to the American presidency in 2016.  Despite the myriad of accusations against him, there is a very real chance he may be elected again in 2024.

In 2029, another candidate with even more trenchant views may step into the Oval Office.

Unless it takes a lead and adapts,the Indo-Pacific risks losing control of its own destiny.