Eastern Indo-Pacific awaits Trump


Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

While President Donald J Trump has visited Europe, East Asia and the Middle East several times, thus far he has not come to any of the countries that form the eastern side of the Indo-Pacific, the giant body of seawater that is the hub of global commerce and geopolitics. Unlike Europe, where the Atlanticist establishment reigns and as a consequence, Trump is unpopular with several local leaders, his image within most of Asia’s ruling elites is good. Candidate Trump gave a promise while on the 2016 Presidential elections campaign that he would – in effect – actualise what his predecessor promised to do, which was to reset US policy from its post-1945 Atlanticist anchor towards mooring onto the Indo-Pacific.
This has so far prevented him from proceeding at speed towards the objective of resetting US policy from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. However, those close to the strong-willed billionaire say that it is only a matter of months before such a shift gets carried out, including through the removal of those in the top layers of his team who are committed Atlanticists, as indeed are many of the members of the Republican establishment. Interestingly, those close to Senator Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party say that (unlike Hillary Clinton) he is not committed to preserving the Atlanticist focus of US foreign, economic and security policy, and that he has been devoting increasing interest to the situation in Asia, especially that in China, the Middle East and India. Among the backers of Senator Sanders in his own party is Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who has become an expert on Asia as a consequence of her numerous visits to the continent, although as yet she seems to have been unable to persuade Senator to visit India and Indonesia, two countries that are the most strategically placed so far as geography of eastern reaches of Indo-Pacific is concerned.
Thus far,neither President Trump nor his Democratic critic Bernie Sanders has visited these two most populous democracies in Asia. A Presidential visit to India and Indonesia would have substantial global resonance. Not only are they two of the three most populous countries on the face of the planet, they are also two of the three countries in the world with the highest number of Muslim citizens. Although the Atlanticist establishment focuses near exclusively on the Middle East in connection with matters connected with the worldwide Muslim ummah, the fact is that all three of these countries (Indonesia, Pakistan and India) are located to the east of that region. Donald Trump has given the backing of his administration to Crown Prince Mohammad Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who for the first time since the establishment of his very important country is working on rolling back the Wahabbi tide, first in Saudi Arabia and subsequently globally. As this is being written, King Abdullah of Jordan is on a visit to India, where the entire population of the country is in a welcoming mode for an individual who represents the finest traditions of Islam, as indeed would be natural from an individual who is a 41st generation descendant of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself.
India has a large Sufi community, and they have come together to welcome Abdullah to Delhi. Unlike in the case of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, where a junior minister was despatched to the airport to welcome him and his family to India, in the case of the King Of Jordan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself went to the airport to receive the royal guest, in a show of empathy for Jordan and its role as an exemplar of moderation in the Middle East. In much the same way, although on a slightly bigger scale, both Indonesia as well as India have proven to the world that the Muslim community is as peace loving and respectful of other faiths as are those who believe in other numerically large religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Whether it be in the UAE (especially Dubai) or in Kuwait, visitors to such countries understand how deep rooted the tradition of tolerance is among the almost wholly Muslim citizenry of such states. Hence the need for President Trump to move away from the Middle East-centric perspective of an Atlanticist establishment that is visceral in its dislike of him and the ideas he represents and visit India and Indonesia as well, having already been (as President of the United States) to the most populated country on the globe, China. Both First Daughter Ivanka Trump as well as eldest son Donald Trump Junior have visited India, thereby paving the way for the US President.
The US has long cherished the objective of serving as a beacon of democracy, and a visit to two of the three largest democracies would showcase such concern in a unique way. A “2 plus 2” summit is already planned for Washington next month, where President Trump and Prime Minister Modi will hold talks, as also Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. There is also talk of Prime Minister Modi meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping the same month, now that the leader of second most important economy has demonstrated to the world his control over the levers of governance in Peoples Republic of China. Indeed, should the US President use the visit to hold a meeting of the Quadrilateral Alliance countries (Japan, Australia,the US and India) while in Delhi, that would be a signal that the alliance is as firm in its structure and resolve as any elsewhere. In Jakarta, he could meet with the leaders of Vietnam and the Philippines together with the President of Indonesia, as the three countries merit inclusion in the Indo-Pacific’s first formal alliance. Hopefully by that time, the situation in the Maldives would have evolved in a manner satisfactory to the democracies.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.