Despite a plethora of domestic issues in an election year — most dramatically the coronavirus pandemic has surpassed 5 million cases in the U.S. as of mid-August — these past few months have seen the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump embarking on a relentless foreign policy offensive with a clear emphasis on China and the Indo-Pacific region.
In fact, one may argue that the pandemic itself is a contributing factor to the impressive pace with which the U.S. is conducting foreign policy. As countries look inward and focus their resources on containing the spread of the virus, China has capitalized on the moment, furthering claims in the East and South China Seas via militarization and other coercive means, as well as deploying troops and increasing construction activities near its Indian border. The destabilizing nature of these actions to a rules-based order has presented a need, as well as an opportunity, for the U.S. to respond and honor its commitment to the region.
So far, it looks like Washington is making good use of this opportunity, and their approach in doing so merits further attention.
Allies and Partners Stepping Up
Consistent with its posture since taking over, the Trump administration continues to apply heavy pressure on China, with an emphasis on its “core interests.” In the past three months, Washington has passed legislation and imposed corresponding sanctions on Chinese officials and entities related to the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, promoted diplomatic and defense relations with Taiwan, increased its military presence and clarified its position on the South China Sea in a way that carries significant implications for further U.S. actions in this regional hotspot.
However, while these actions carry weight and may be of temporary deterrence to China, they lack the ability to bring about sustained security and stability for the region. The U.S. understands that its quest for a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific cannot solely rely on a unilateral pressure campaign against China.
With that in mind, the U.S. has recently placed greater emphasis on getting other players in the region involved, welcoming and, in certain cases, pushing its allies and partners in the region to play a larger role. The vast majority of U.S. initiatives in the Indo-Pacific have included regional powers like Japan, Australia, and to a lesser extent, India, in leadership capacities. ASEAN centrality has also been a prominent theme in U.S. engagement with the region, emphasized in speeches and reflected in actions.
To be sure, cooperation with allies and partners has long been a central theme in U.S. engagement with the region. It is noteworthy, however, that the recent response from allies and partners have been a lot more positive from the U.S. point of view. Many countries, including those initially less inclined such as India, Malaysia or the Philippines, have recently adopted a harder stance toward China while boosting cooperation with the United States.
This is particularly apparent in the South China Sea issue, evidenced by the “Note Verbale war” in the United Nations regarding China’s maritime claims, and the fact that even usually-reserved Brunei released a statement on the South China Sea following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s defining statement on July 13.
That begs the question, other than China’s exploitative actions, which have certainly been serious yet not entirely new or game-changing, what exactly has prompted the rather significant shift in the region’s response?
The answer, as mentioned in the beginning, lies in a new U.S. approach centered around one word: “principle.”
A Timely and Necessary Adjustment
Lost in the “America First” mantra and its surrounding controversies, the true buzzword of U.S. foreign policy so far in the Trump administration has yet to receive the attention it deserves. In fact, “principle” has been a recurring theme in every major U.S. policy paper under the Trump administration, including the 2017 National Security Strategy, which states that U.S. strategy is based on “principled realism.”
Applied to the Indo-Pacific, “principle” has been utilized as the core tenet of a new network-based approach to the region, at a time when the U.S. is facing fundamental challenges in the current regional landscape, most notably the rise of China, the desire from regional countries to hedge against uncertainties associated with great power competition, and the interconnectedness that stems from decades of globalization.
First introduced by former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue in the form of a “principled security network,” the United States is adjusting its approach to the Indo-Pacific in a way that broadens the scope of its engagement, from the hub-and-spoke model of strictly bilateral and exclusive alliances to a more flexible network of allies and partners that promotes both U.S.-centric relationships as well as intra-regional arrangements. “Principles,” namely universally shared values of sovereignty, freedom, openness, inclusiveness, respect for international law, and no threat or use of force, serve as the glue that holds this network together.
Under the Trump administration, this “principled network” approach, while still prioritizing security, has expanded to pillars such as economy and technology. Examples include the Economic Prosperity Network, Asia EDGE Initiative, and the Clean Network, which the United States says will offer more sustainable, transparent and secure alternatives to China’s, and serve to reduce many countries’ dependence on China in critical sectors such as infrastructure, energy and telecommunications.
Without a doubt, current U.S. foreign policy ultimately comes down to the overarching goal of strategic competition with China. This “principled network” approach is no exception. But by promoting shared values that are largely in accordance with principles enshrined in the UN Charter or the ASEAN Charter instead of coercively forcing countries to side with them, the United States is helping allies and partners in the region broaden their maneuverability, allowing them to align policies with universal values in accordance with their national interests as small and middle powers, instead of having to pick sides in a strategic competition. This is a key factor that, when juxtaposed with China’s behavior, has led to certain countries recently “leaning” more toward the U.S.
The largely positive response so far from regional countries has shown that the U.S. approach does fit into current regional architecture — one with different, flexible layers of cooperation, including those with China, that are mostly based on national interests. With early dividends thus far, coupled with bipartisan consensus on the importance of the Indo-Pacific as reflected in bills such as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act and the Pacific Deterrence Initiative Act, the U.S. likely will, and should, maintain its leadership and engagement with the region via a “principled network” approach.
To do so, the U.S. will need to address a number of common concerns among regional policymakers. The network approach remains heavily focused on security, a pillar that has seen promising progress yet remains a sensitive area of cooperation for many U.S. partners who wish not to be perceived as part of a coalition against China. While the Trump administration has recently placed a greater emphasis on the economic front, the amount of U.S.-sponsored completed projects in the region remains modest. Quite a few countries remain skeptical, seeing Washington’s regional involvement merely as bluster not backed up by real action, hampered by Trump’s reputation for policy volatility, over-emphasis on “putting America first,” and a general lack of interest in multilateral platforms.
Therefore, it is important that the U.S. continues to closely align its approach with principles shared within the region. A recent statement by ASEAN Foreign Ministers on maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia serves as a fitting blueprint, as it stresses the importance of ASEAN centrality, building strategic trust, resolving disputes on the basis of international law, and promoting multilateralism. In addition, the U.S. should look for ways, quickly and creatively, to secure breakthroughs on energy or infrastructure projects in the region.
After years of struggle, it seems as though the United States has found the proper strategic approach for its engagement in the Indo-Pacific. It is now up to Washington to build on its current momentum and consolidate its leadership role in ensuring a peaceful, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific that benefits all parties involved.
Dr. Vu Le Thai Hoang and Huy Nguyen are analysts of U.S. foreign policy and regional security at the Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.