ASEAN, S. Korea open to Indo-Pacific, but cautious over ties with China

Ko Hirano, Kyodo News

Posted at Nov 22 2017 12:49 PM

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet for a dinner at a restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Southeast Asian countries welcome a push by U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for "a free and open Indo-Pacific region" based on the rule of law, as long as the concept is not intended to alienate China, a major aid provider for developing Asia, according to a Philippine scholar.

The Indo-Pacific concept featuring the quadrilateral partnership of the United States, Japan, India and Australia looks "intriguing," and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is closely watching how it plays out, says Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.

Speaking in an interview at his university in Quezon City within metropolitan Manila, Arugay said the key to the U.S.-led initiative is how well the Trump administration can coordinate with like-minded partners amid its perceived disregard for multilateralism.

"I don't see this as a multilateral scheme but more of a hub-and-spokes structure, with the United States, a Pacific power, at its core," he said. "Trump may not like multilateralism but he is unlikely to be a singular leader in this concept either, which, in turn, requires close coordination with a layer of middle-level powers like Japan, India, Australia and perhaps even South Korea."

During Trump's trip to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines earlier this month, his first to Asia since taking office in January, he pitched the Indo-Pacific strategy for an inclusive and rules-based order and agreed to promote it with Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

In a Nov. 6 meeting in Tokyo, Abe and Trump affirmed they will cooperate with any country -- including China, a nondemocratic, emerging economic powerhouse critics see as undermining the rules-based international order -- that shares the vision of creating a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific, a vast area covering the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific and the countries that surround them.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands following their joint press conference at the White House in Washington, US, February 10, 2017. Jim Bourg, Reuters

"Trump is lucky to have leaders like Abe and Modi because they have already bought in this project," Arugay said, referring to Abe's "security diamond" concept involving Tokyo, the U.S. state of Hawaii, Canberra and New Delhi and Modi's "Act East" policy that seeks to boost India's engagement with East Asia.

The two approaches take aim at China's assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas, as well as its increased military presence in the Indian Ocean under the so-called string of pearls strategy, a network of Chinese investments in maritime facilities stretching from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea as if to encircle India.

"What you need now is to make sure that ASEAN and middle-level powers like South Korea are on board," Arugay said. "ASEAN is open to new ideas, but don't force ASEAN to choose between the U.S.-Japan and China" -- a major aid donor and trading partner for the 10-nation grouping -- "because we simply can't take sides."

Similarly, South Korea appears to be taking a wait-and-see stance toward the Indo-Pacific concept. Experts believe Seoul needs to see more details and clarity before making moves that could sour ties with Beijing, its largest trading partner and a country that wields the biggest leverage to rein in a nuclear-armed North Korea.

"While it is a familiar concept in Japan and among some pockets of the strategic community, it is a new idea to many in Seoul," said Lee Seong Hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. "The new focus from 'Asia-Pacific' to 'Indo-Pacific' is bound to raise some eyebrows in Beijing if its real strategic intention is to contain China."

"Seoul welcomes 'rules-based' free and open regional order," Lee said in an email. "But if its unspoken intention is to contain China, then it needs some discussions and Washington needs to do some clever policy PR to recruit more regional participation that expands beyond the quad."

In an address to the Nov. 10-11 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam, Trump called for the rule of law, individual rights and freedom of navigation and overflight in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, a message apparently directed to China.

The U.S. leader also said Washington will no longer turn a blind eye to "territorial expansion" and "economic aggression," without elaborating.

In a veiled criticism of China's infrastructure investments in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, Trump said he will push the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and U.S. development finance institutions to "provide strong alternatives to state-directed initiatives that come with many strings attached."

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decried Beijing's foreign infrastructure investments as an example of "predatory economics" that does not lead to job creation and economic growth in recipient countries, leaving them with enormous levels of debt.

Tillerson said Oct. 18 in Washington that the Trump administration began a "quiet conversation" with some emerging East Asian democracies in August about creating alternatives to Chinese infrastructure financing in Asia, without providing details.

The top U.S. diplomat suggested possible participation by Australia and other countries in the annual Malabar maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean with the United States, India and Japan.

Arugay said that if the Indo-Pacific concept were developed further, it could offer alternatives for China's Belt and Road Initiative, an extensive infrastructure plan to link Beijing with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Europe and Africa that critics say is more about drawing neighboring countries deeper into its economic orbit.

"It depends on whether the Trump administration will put its money where its mouth is," he said. "I also expect Abe to play an active role as the major victory by his ruling coalition in Japan's general election last month has given him the political capital to drive quadrilateral cooperation forward."