US Elections Untangled – EP 13: The delicate balance in the Indo-Pacific Region (with Bart Gaens)

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FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled

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Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

 
US Elections Untangled – EP 13: The delicate balance in the Indo-Pacific Region (Bart Gaens)

The increasing antagonism between the US and China has put the countries in the Indo-Pacific region in a tough spot, and the American presidential elections are unlikely to make their life easier regardless of the result.

“US-China rivalry will continue. That is here to stay”, says Project Director Bart Gaens from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“What we will continue to be seeing is that (the Indo-Pacific) countries are hedging and balancing the US and China against each other.”

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Read the text version of the episode

[recording starts]

 

Maria Annala: [00:00:01]: Welcome to US Elections Untangled, a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

 

An audio recording of Donald Trump: [00:00:10]: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America First, America First.

 

An audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald’s Trump’s brand of America First has too often led to America alone.

 

Annala: [00:00:35]: Hello everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and I’m going to be your host throughout this series. In today’s episode we will be talking about the US’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific countries. Our guest today is Project Director Bart Gaens from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

 

Annala: [00:01:04]: Hello Bart, thanks for being here.

 

Gaens: [00:01:05]: Happy to be here.

 

Annala: [00:01:07]: The US has paid a lot of attention to Asia, both during the Obama presidency and now during the Trump presidency, but I’m under the impression that policies on Asia didn’t really work out for either one of these presidents. So what was Obama’s pivot to Asia and what happened when he tried to pursue it?

 

Gaens: [00:01:25]: Well I think that now, for several decades already, there has been a lot of talk about the rise of Asia and the Asian century that would be coming. First of all that’s to do with economy – that Asia would be the fastest growing region on Earth and that the 21st century would become the Asian century, after the 20th century that was, perhaps, American, and the 19th century that was European. The US was certainly aware of that economic shift towards Asia. Then of course there’s also the security dimension of things. In a way, you could say there’s an Asian paradox because it’s very vibrant in terms of economic growth, economies are rapidly growing and there is a lot of trade integration as well, but at the same time, in terms of security, Asia is quite a hot spot, let’s say. The situation is quite tense. There’s a lot of territorial disputes and historical grievances. There’s even maybe an ongoing arms race and so forth. At the same time, there’s not so much security security cooperation, not so many over-arching multilateral security institution. I think with that double idea in mind, the US tried to launch this pivot towards Asia under the Obama administration starting in 2012, or what he called ”rebalancing” towards Asia. I think the idea was very much to strengthen to US military presence, but also the diplomatic presence, in Asia and to strength this so-called ”hub and spokes” system by reallocating resources, and more focus and attention, to Asia. I think one good example of that was the idea to launch the TPP, this mega trade deal between 12 countries in the Asia Pacific. Perhaps also one other idea behind the pivot was that the US wanted to advance its relationships with countries in the region as a way to engage China more. Now you can discuss whether or not the pivot was a failure. I think when you look at the situation on the ground, not much happened in fact, except perhaps the reallocation of some troops to Australia. I think more important than that though was that the global situation changes in the meantime. There was the Ukraine crisis, the Russian annexation of Crimea. There was a situation with the Middle East in Syria, and so on. All that drew attention away from Asia so in that sense, the pivot was indeed not a success, but perhaps on the level of rhetoric, it can be seen as more successful in that it gave more reassurance to countries like Japan. Reassurance that the US would keep on aiming to remain the key security provider in the region and also, to continue to show regional leadership. I would say, certainly, on the ground not much has happened but in terms of rhetoric, it was more important and certainly, if you think about longer-term implications, I think it is unavoidable that the US will be pivoting more towards Asia.

 

Annala: [00:04:53]: Some of the people who are critical of the pivot say that it antagonized China. What do you think about that?

 

Gaens: [00:05:03]: It’s certainly did antagonize China to a certain extent, but I think China became aware of the fact that not much was happening on the ground. The US remained distracted by regions like the Middle East and so on, so to some extent, it did form some kind of reassurance for China that not much was actually happening.

 

Annala: [00:05:26]: When we talk about US-Asian relations, we often talk about the Indo-Pacific region, so what is that exactly and why is that so often the focus?

 

Gaens: [00:05:39]: Well ”Indo-Pacific” is actually quite a new term. It’s a strategic term that is used to denote a wider Asian region stretching all the way from South Asia, including India, to South-East Asia as well as Oceania. The goal is very much to give India a more prominent role in that region and perhaps, at the same time, give China a relatively lesser role. The concept itself is not very new, it was launched already in 2007, actually by Japanese Prime Minister Abe, and was adopted by the Trump administration more recently in 2017. So Prime Minister Abe’s initial idea was to join these two oceans, the Indian and Pacific. He also connected it with what he called ”fundamental values” like freedom, democracy, human rights, and also more strategic interests for Japan in particular, like freedom of sea lanes and so on. Ever since the US adopted the concept in 2017, it has also been adopted by other countries like India and Australia. Now there’s a lot of talk about this free and open Indo-Pacific, which is supposedly standing for some kind of commitment to a region that is open, free, inclusive, and rules-based. Of course this is, not explicitly but implicitly, a reference to China and the US-China rivalry that underscores the whole situation. It also refers to the fact that now other emerging powers, like India and even smaller countries, are repositioning themselves within this competition and maybe trying to hedge against future uncertainty.

 

Annala: [00:07:41]: So when we talk about the Indo-Pacific, China is not part of it or is? What is the reference to China exactly?

 

Gaens: [00:07:49]: Like I said, the reference in implicit and China does not use this term. It’s a term used by so-called ”like-minded” democracies in the first place. India, Australia, Japan, and the US. China would rather use terms like Community of a Shared Destiny, and so on, and perhaps also aim more to re-establish this Cino-centric region that it would rather call Asia.

 

Annala: [00:08:18]: That makes sense. Let’s talk a little bit about President Trump. During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly attacked China and lamented that China was taking advantage of the US. What has that meant for the American-Asia relationships and US-Indo-Pacific relationships now that Trump has been president?

 

Gaens: [00:08:46]: I think you can think about it in terms of change and continuity. Of course, on the surface of it, there has been a big change from Obama’s ”Asia first” rhetorical policy to Trump’s ”America first” policy. Of course Trump, perhaps explicitly, tried to dismantle the Obama legacy and maybe the best example of that is the US withdrawing from this trans-Pacific partnership, this mega-regional free trade deal. According to Obama, the initial idea was to strengthen America’s overall strategic position in the region. Trump doing away with this was seen as the US maybe giving up a certain type of global leadership; key issues like climate but also trade. Instead, Trump has been focusing more on bilateral trade deals and he’s been taking a very business-like and transactional approach also to alliances in the region. He accuses allies, for example, of taking advantage of the United State. In that sense, there has been a big shift and a change for sure. At the same time, I think there has been continuity because some core elements of the current strategy for the Indo-Pacific that the US has have stayed in place. For example, the systems of alliances and partnerships has actually been strengthening, and not weakening, during the Trump administration. It has, perhaps, taken on a bit of a different shape. Cooperation, consultations and dialogue now take place much more on the level of bilateral relations, or even trilateral. Allies are now also working much more between themselves, so I think from a more rigid ”hub and spokes” system, there has been, especially during the Trump administration, a shift towards even stronger security network approaches to these alliances and partnerships.

 

Annala: [00:11:14]: So who are the Americans’ main allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region?

 

Gaens: [00:11:19]: First of all, you have the traditional allies in the ”hub and spokes” system that have been in place for over 70 years already. The military allies with countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, for example. In addition to these formal alliances, you have this network of informal partnerships, and I think this relationship with India is a good example here in this context. Maybe another good example would be the ”Quad”, the quadrilateral security dialogue which is a form of cooperation between the US, Australia, India, and Japan. It is also something that is not all that new, it started in 2007, but then because of Australia’s withdrawal there was a 10 year break before it was relaunched more recently in late 2017. In fact, just yesterday there was a gathering at the foreign ministers’ level of this ”quad”. It’s quite informal and lowkey, under the radar, not to offend China one might think. In the meeting yesterday, for example, US secretary of state Pompeo was quite vocal and very critical of China’s actions in particular in the South China sea. China of course has not liked this gathering of the ”quad” very much. It has been criticizing it as an ”anti-China” alliance, aiming to contain China in this region, and it has even said that it might be an attempt to create a NATO type of alliance in Asia.

 

Annala: [00:13:15]: Is it?

 

Gaens: [00:13:18]: I would say not yet. I think it will never become a formal alliance like NATO but there are indications that the countries involved are taking it more seriously and that it might change from a quite lose and informal consultation platform to something more concrete. Three countries in the ”quad” have already had military exercises for quite some years now – Japan, the US, and India. There is now talk in particular because of tensions between India and China, that India, the main organizer of this military exercise, might actually also invite Australia to join this naval exercise. Those are perhaps small hints that, in the future, maybe this might develop towards something more formal and serious.

 

Annala: [00:14:17]: If we look at the US-Japan relationship, for example, during the Trump presidency has it changed a lot? I know Trump has been critical of all the US’s traditional allies, including Japan, but what has it meant in practice?

 

Gaens: [00:14:37]: In practice, there was a bit of panic perhaps in Japan. They have always been grappling with this fear of abandonment and entrapment when it comes to its relationships with the US. So fear of abandonment in that Japan would need to stand for its own security and defense, that it would need to become independent. There was a bit of, let’s say, an identity crisis initially when Trump came into office. Also the fact that Trump was, of course, going about things in his personal style. He started, for example, negotiations with North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un without consulting Japan. There was a lot of worry in Japan that Trump was not directly, or at all, thinking about Japan’s interest and security. There was a lot of unease and worries and perhaps even an identity crisis, but I think that kind of subsided. In the past few years, some perhaps conservative forces in Japan might actually be happy with Trump and satisfied that he’s taking a much tougher approach towards China because of course, Japan still has quite a tense relationship with China.

 

Annala: [00:16:03]: How about the US-Indian relationship? Has there been interesting developments in the past 4 years?

 

Gaens: [00:16:11]: As for the US’s relationship with India, India has always had the tradition to remain non-aligned, even though it has a very strong relationship with Russia, for example, in terms of defense equipment and so on. In the past years, India has certainly inched closer to the US and of course, the two share quite a lot of mutual interests in ensuring that there is a balance of power. This has everything to do with China approaching India in the region in the first place through infrastructure projects in the framework of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), including the fact that China has been accessing ports in the Indian Ocean which it now has access to. It has been expanding its economic as well as political influence in the immediate neighbourhood and there is, of course, the territorial despite has flared up again recently between China and India. For all these reason, India has been inching close to the US in terms of defense cooperation. Where that will develop from now remains to be seen. Most likely this closer relationship with the US will be here to stay, in my view.

 

Annala: [00:17:41]: Has Trump been welcoming India inching closer to the US? Has Trump done anything to create closer ties with India or is it mostly just for external reasons that don’t have much to do with the US, per se, or the president?

 

Gaens: [00:17:59]:  I think Donald Trump has been trying to establish a very close bond with India’s Prime Minister Modi, for example. There have been mutual visits attended by many thousands of people so in his own style, he has been trying to create these personal bonds of loyalty or friendship, let’s say. At the more structural level, I think there has quite a lot of changes as well. India is now much closer aligned with US exactly for the reasons that I mentioned – the tense relationships with China.

 

Annala: [00:18:38]: What do you think a second Trump term might mean for the relationship the US has with the Indo-Pacific countries?

 

Gaens: [00:18:46]: I think that the US-China rivalry will continue, that is here to stay, you might even say that has become the new norm. What we will continue to see is that countries are hedging and balancing the US and China against each other. You can think, for example, India or the Philippines might be another. The Philippines’ president Duterte might be ideologically closer to China in spite of a formal alliance with the US, but he has been declaring this pivot to China in recent years. Then more recently, he has again been leaning back towards the US more, so countries will continue to play out both countries against each other and to try to find a balance between them. Myanmar could be seen as another example as there is a lot of Chinese investment there, but at the same time, the country has been trying to bring in other actors including Japan, the US, and also the EU, to invest in the country with infrastructure projects. Vietnam is also another example, equally a communist regime and therefore leaning a bit more towards China, but still with very strong strategic links with the US. I think these are all examples of this hedging and balancing that these countries will continue to do in the future. Then a second thing maybe is that this ”hub and spoke” system, like I said, will become more informal and perhaps more based on certainly specific issues related to defense and security. There will be more loose strategic partnerships that are being formed in the region so it will perhaps become a more fuzzy and networked structure compared to before.

 

Annala: [00:20:47]: So it’s not so clear anymore what the alliances are, it’s more issues based, and when a certain issue arises, certain countries work together on that. Then when something else is discussed it might be a different set of countries working together if their interest align?

 

Gaens: [00:21:09]: Well the alliances will remain in place and will remain formal and institutionalized, but I think in additional to that, allies will be cooperating more with each other. There will be more cooperation spoke-to-spoke in this ”hub and spokes” system and also in additional to that, there will be more based on certain issues. There will be cooperation between, let’s say, a formal US ally and a US partner such as Japan and India cooperating. This would mean that the two countries wouldn’t be cooperating on everything. They would not be becoming formal allies or even agreeing on everything, like the stance towards China, but they would be collaborating on, let’s say, certain connectivity projects and infrastructure projects. Japan and India now have the Asia-Africa growth corridor idea, at least on paper, which would aim to form a counter-balance to the Chinese activities in Africa, for example.

 

Annala: [00:22:14]: Trump can be very antagonizing. I wonder, since the countries are going to be pit the US and China against each other in a way, or hedge their bets, do you think Trump is going to be okay with them finding this balance? Is there a risk that he is going to somehow make the Asian partners and allies choose one over the other and sort of very clearly align with one and sever ties with the other? The same as I feel he’s trying to do in Europe.

 

Gaens: [00:22:47]: Certainly there is that risk but, perhaps, I think you should also make a big distinction between the Trump rhetoric and what is actually happening on the ground. Like I said, this system of alliances and partnerships is actually strengthening and not weakening in spite of what Trump has been saying and perhaps trying to do. He has been trying to make countries like Japan pay more money for the upkeep of American troops on Japanese soil. I think so far Japan has been paying something like 70% of the costs for the maintenance of US troops on Japanese soil. Trump was arguing that that should actually be 100% plus an additional 50% in host nation support. In spite of that, if you then look at what is happening at lower levels, operational levels, military-to-military cooperation, purchases of defense equipment, for example, Japan purchases 90% of its defense equipment from the US. If you look at what is happening on the ground, there is a tendency of the relationships getting stronger, not weaker, in spite of Donald Trump.

 

Annala: [00:24:04]: How about if Joe Biden wins the election and becomes the next president. What would be the key similarities and differences between a second Trump term or a Biden presidency?

 

Gaens: [00:24:20]: Well if there would be a Biden administration, he is believed to be quite a strong proponent of this network of allies and partners, and he sees as one of the greatest accomplishments in ensuring peace and stability in Asia. I think if there would be a Biden administration, he will certainly try to further strengthen that alliance network and also perhaps focus more on common values like democracy and rules-based approaches. There might also be a shift to a more multilateral approach instead of the Trumpian bilateral approach. There might even be a chance that the US rejoins the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that is now being continued in a different form. It’s between the 11 countries that are left, not least the Japanese leadership, so I think the US might actually rejoin the TPP. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that certain things will likely not change. I think we have moved on from this era when the US tried to engage China, cooperate and see them as a partner. Now there is even a bi-partisan consensus that there needs to be a tougher approach towards China, especially in the light of what is happening in the South China Sea and what the US sees as China’s exaggerated maritime claims. I think there’s going to be changes and continuity in that sense.

 

Annala: [00:25:58]: Alright. Well to finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 election results might mean for the relationships that the US has with the Indo-Pacific countries?

 

Gaens: [00:26:13]: As for a nightmare scenario, I think it’s unlikely to happen, but that would be that Trump’s personal approach and attempts to approach allies in a more transactional way would lead countries into going it alone. That they would become convinced that they need to take care of their own defense and security, which would then certainly lead to an escalation of tensions in the region. Japan, for example, would see itself forced to revise its passivist constitution so that it would also allow offense capabilities. This would lead to an arms race as well as rivalry and competition for leadership in the region, and there’s no way that China would allow Japan to do that. In terms of the situation in the Korea Peninsula too, that would only lead to an escalation of things. That would be a nightmare scenario but I think that the system in place is likely to be much more resilient than that. An optimistic scenario would indeed be that this networked alliance structure would become stronger and there would more cooperation based on values, rules, and international law. That there would be a peaceful coexistence as well as cooperation with China. I think here we should not be overly optimistic, but realistic, and be aware that this US rivalry will stay and also that countries in the region, smaller and larger, will continue to keep on hedging their bets and trying to balance the two countries against each other.

 

Annala: [00:28:10]: Alright, thank you so much for being here.

 

Gaens: [00:28:12]: You’re welcome.

 

Annala: [00:28:15]: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be talking about the relationship between the US and Germany. Our guest will be Leading Researcher Niklas Helwig from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

 

 

[recording ends]