The Four Policemen of Asia’s unspoken mission
US security strategy in Asia undermined by its refusal to support global free trade agreements
The Trump administration has rolled out two new policies for Asia under its recent National Security Strategy (NSS).
First, the document formally adopts and activates the Quadrilateral Alliance - call it the Four Policemen of Asia - who would maintain regional stability and is obviously aimed at countering Chinese military and financial hegemony.
The second new policy is the elevation of India in America's national security interests, with a clear mandate for New Delhi to play a leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Asian Quadrilateral - consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia - was announced in November with the unstated - but obvious - objective of counterbalancing growing Chinese assertiveness.
It is noteworthy that not only has the Quadrilateral been enshrined in the NSS, but it has also taken the new entity forward with its affirmation to "increase cooperation" between the four partners.
The two new policies are interlinked. The activation of the Quadrilateral and India's leading role within it may become the centrepieces of an emerging Asian order.
The Trump NSS aims to expand US defence and security cooperation with India, whom it designates as "a major defence partner", and to "support India's growing relationships throughout the region".
The US desires to make India bend to its will, and India is appearing to support the US-created order in the Indo-Pacific.
But New Delhi values its so-called "strategic autonomy", which implies that India will act freely and not adhere to foreign policy dictated by any external power if such policy harms Indian relations with other countries.
There are at least two areas where India may diverge from the US.
First, while India shares the view that Chinese hegemony should be balanced by a coalition of regional powers, both China and India are rapidly improving their economic relations as a means of creating the basis for regional harmony.
Second, Indian policymakers are worried about Mr Trump's continuing effort to persuade US Congress to scrap the Iran nuclear deal signed by Mr Obama, and to impose possible new sanctions against Iran, as India is building a seaport in Iran and values it as a source of energy supply.
The Trump administration, however, seems to be distancing itself from the president's tweets about isolating the US.
The NSS attaches great importance to selected Asean countries. "Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are growing security and economic partners of the United States", it declares.
The US system of Asian alliances is still strong. But some "allies" do not see themselves exclusively as American partners, and others are challenging the US in many ways, demonstrating their ability to conduct their foreign policy with a measure of strategic autonomy.
The US counts the Philippines and Thailand as "important allies and markets for Americans".
But both these countries, as well as Malaysia, are firmly allied to China, which the NSS views with deep suspicion.
The US strategy, nonetheless, proclaims that Asean and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation "remain centrepieces of the Indo-Pacific's regional architecture and platforms for promoting an order based on freedom".
There is, however, no mention of reviving multilateral free trade pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Mr Trump's NSS speaks about the need for US-China cooperation, but it also correctly warns that "China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China's infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations".
Not all countries, however, want to see continuing US dominance.
The Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia seek to create a balance of power, to the extent possible, between China and the US, as these countries have received large-scale investment capital from Beijing, which the US has not matched.
The Trump NSS, alas, does not give any signal that the administration will ever return to global free trade.
The US has lost an opportunity of creating a new Asian order based on free trade. The president should have reconsidered his decision to scrap the TPP.
His administration's effort to create a new security framework for Asia will be less effective because it is not built on a foundation of a region-wide free trade agreement.
The writer is a former BT Senior Indochina Correspondent. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.