The Trump Administration's Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs Proof of Life

Julianne Smith, Garima Mohan

No single word better describes today’s international system than “competition.” China and Russia are competing with the United States for power, influence, and access to markets across multiple continents. With its Belt and Road investments and targeted diplomacy, China is creating new partnerships across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Russia has been busy establishing new strategic links across the Middle East with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria. Occasionally, when their strategic interests collide, China and Russia work together, as they did on the margins of the G20 earlier this year when their heads of state met with the prime minister of India.

The United States is also competing but too often it is competing alone. As the global strategic center of gravity shifts to Asia, the Trump administration has used its Indo-Pacific strategy as an attempt to reassure allies and partners of the United States’ continued interest in the region. But putting these strategies on paper isn’t enough. Just this month, the United States sent the lowest level delegation to the East Asia Summit (EAS)—a forum seen by many in the region as the leading Indo-Pacific platform. This was followed by a very public spat with leaders of ASEAN, which the United States can ill-afford right now given China’s increasing clout in Southeast Asia. If the United States wants to keep pace with the dizzying array of new partnerships, trilaterals and quadrilaterals unfolding around the world, then it will have to not only show up but also get a lot more creative in its approach. One way to do that is to create a new trilateral partnership between the leaders of the United States, Europe and India.

While this may sound like an odd place to start, our organization, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, has been convening groups of Americans, European and Indian policymakers, business leaders, and academics for close to a decade. Initially designed to foster transatlantic responses to the rise of India, the utility of this forum has never been more obvious. While the early years saw occasional disagreements between Indians and Americans, and left the Europeans largely on the sidelines, over time these gatherings have strengthened U.S.-India ties and deepened Europeans’ understanding of the Indo-Pacific. Perhaps most importantly, this forum is now providing an important platform for Americans, Europeans, and Indians to talk about some of the challenges associated with China’s rise. The most recent iteration in September 2019 in New Delhi showed increasing convergence and willingness of the three partners to work together on everything from connectivity to trade to security.

It is time to institutionalize this partnership at the highest political levels. The challenge comes in determining who would represent Europe in such a trilateral. Given Trump’s negative views toward the European Union, it will have to be a national leader in Europe. There’s only one choice. With Merkel weakened politically and increasingly looking inward, and Johnson too busy with Brexit to flesh out “Global Britain’s” ambitions, Macron is the de facto leader of Europe. France is perhaps the only European country with a clear vision for a global role and its own Indo-Pacific strategy. The France-India relationship, too, has seen a great revival in the last few years, catapulting France to one of India’s top strategic partners. France’s strong support for India in the UN Security Council, their multifaceted cooperation on everything from civil nuclear cooperation, defense, counterterrorism, space, to the Indian Ocean with logistics support agreements and mutual access to military bases demonstrates just how far French-India ties have come.

When Trump hosts the G7 next summer, he should invite French president Emmanuel Macron and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to meet with him on the sidelines for a new trilateral gathering. Such a meeting would serve multiple purposes. First, the meeting would showcase the unity and resolve among three powerful democratic allies. A joint statement from those three countries on the importance of preserving democratic values and norms would send a strong signal to authoritarian leaders around the world and keep India focused on its shared values with the West.

Second, a U.S.-India-France trilateral would breathe fresh life into the ailing transatlantic relationship by providing an opportunity not only to align U.S. and French Indo-Pacific approaches but also their approaches toward China. As China’s steadily rising economic and political influence on the European continent shows, all of China’s Belts and Roads lead to Europe. This challenge is the new transatlantic agenda, and any successful transatlantic strategy for addressing China’s rise must also include partners like India, which have many similar experiences to share on that front. 

Finally, this new trilateral format could restore French and Indian faith in their relationship with the United States—particularly at a time when they are encountering some rough waters on the trade front. Trump has confronted both Europe and India over their trade practices and imposed tariffs, which have threatened to shake global markets. A trilateral meeting among the three leaders of the United States, France and India could grant them an opportunity to smooth over trade differences, especially in light of ongoing trade frictions with China.

The first line of the recent State Department report on its Indo-Pacific strategy states that “President Donald J. Trump has made U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific region a top priority of his Administration.” The president’s recent decision to skip the EAS made at least some folks question that assertion. Creating this new trilateral format among three democratic allies, however, would reaffirm America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, showcase much-needed innovation in the transatlantic space, and foster better coordination on everything from mobilizing private investments for regional connectivity to ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean.

Julianne Smith is a director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund and a former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden. Garima Mohan is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund.

Image: Reuters

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