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Is the Trump Administration About to Take On China's Belt and Road Initiative?

 
 

It’s not every day that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers an important foreign policy address, but he may have done exactly that this week on Wednesday. At a think tank in Washington, D.C., Tillerson spoke at length on the U.S. relationship with India ahead of his scheduled trip to New Delhi. (The full transcript of Tillerson’s remarks is available here.) I’ll come back to Tillerson’s remarks on India in a separate article (likely following his visit), but here I want to focus on a particularly interesting component of his remarks.

For the first time, we’re starting to see glimpses of an Asia strategy coming from the Trump administration — specifically, a strategy to counter China’s now nearly four-year-long Belt and Road Initiative (originally known as ‘One Belt, One Road’).

Tillerson’s speech this week wasn’t the first glimpse of this strategy. Many observers of the region took note of U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “In a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’.”

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Mattis was unusually blunt — leaving no doubt as to which country and initiative he was referring to. But still, it wasn’t clear if the defense secretary’s words were the result of a fast-developing policy or a bit of off-the-cuff improvisation. After all, the United States had sent a delegation to China’s Belt and Road Forum led by National Security Council Senior Director for East Asia Matt Pottinger. Moreover, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, this May, recognized “the importance of China’s One Belt and One Road initiative.” Have the tables possibly turned?

Tillerson’s speech this week should lead to more confidence that they have. His address on Wednesday suggests that the Trump administration is nearing the unveiling of a major vision to counter China’s efforts to drawn regional states into its orbit via its multifarious Belt and Road Intiative-related projects and institutions. It’s not surprising to see this couched in a speech about the U.S.-India relations. New Delhi has been pursuing the matter with Washington; remember that the Trump-Modi joint statement this summer contained a thinly veiled rejection of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as well.

The growing catchphrase for this U.S. vision for Asia is “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Tillerson used the framing multiple times in his India speech and the White House has even signaled that U.S. President Donald J. Trump, on his upcoming trip to Asia, will deliver a speech around the theme in Da Nang, Vietnam. That speech will likely be an important moment in the Trump administration’s development of a comprehensive Asia strategy — an overdue moment certainly, nearly ten months into the Trump presidency.

If Tillerson’s speech can be taken as a teaser of what Trump may say at Da Nang, it is likely that the United States will soon speak of the Belt and Road Initiative in openly adversarial terms. Tillerson noted, for example, during the question-and-answer component of the event, that the United States thinks it is “important that we begin to develop some means of countering that with alternative financing measures, financing structures.” He implied that India, which made its opposition to China’s initiative well known in May with a terse statement, would have an important role to play in this endeavor.

In his prepared remarks, Tillerson also noted that “many Indo-Pacific nations have limited alternatives when it comes to infrastructure investment programs and financing schemes, which often fail to promote jobs or prosperity for the people they claim to help.” His prescription for this limitation was that it was time to “expand transparent, high-standard regional lending mechanisms – tools that will actually help nations instead of saddle them with mounting debt.”

It’s unclear how specifically the United States will go about doing this, but it seems increasingly likely that Washington will list like-minded Asian states — including India, Japan, and possibly Australia — to assist in this endeavor. While the explicitly adversarial intent to “counter” the Belt and Road Initiative is new, a lot of what Tillerson mentions borrows heavily from the Obama administration’s own vision for Asia.

For instance, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s “principled security network” leaned heavily on a similar premise of bringing many like-minded Asian states together to buttress the regional security architecture. While the “rebalance” is long gone, we may finally have the first glimpse of a guiding vision for the Trump administration’s Asia policy — one that will make countering Chinese domination of regional economic order a central objective.

Of course, it remains to be seen if Tillerson’s speech turns out to be an aberration in itself. Recent profiles of the secretary of state, in the New Yorker and the New York Times, have highlighted his near-total irrelevance in the Trump administration’s core policy processes, which remain concentrated in the White House. Additionally, with critical senior-level State Department posts vacant and a continued lack of ambassadorial appointments, it appears more likely than not that this new “vision” may remain just that for some time.

Finally, it bears mentioning that much of this counter-Belt-and-Road vision runs contrary to the core “America First” philosophy that Trump himself has mostly kept to. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine Trump giving his imprimatur to “expand transparent, high-standard regional lending mechanisms” in Asia. Meanwhile, the creation of alternatives to China-led institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in itself seems misguided. After all, the AIIB itself was borne of China — and other states — having grown tired of waiting for its day at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, organizations where the U.S. won’t be giving up its disproportionate influence anytime soon.

Despite all this, Trump’s upcoming Asia trip will no doubt serve as an important opportunity for the administration make clear just when the rubber will hit the road on these ambitious-sounding plans. We’ll have to wait and see for now.

Editor’s Note: The Diplomat‘s editors discuss Trump’s upcoming Asia trip on a recent podcast. Listen here.

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