On Collision Course in the Indo-Pacific
President Donald Trump is making political waves by deploying warships. But is the United States gambling with its credibility as an international force for order?
Since 2002, the most important security conference in the Asia-Pacific region has been held annually at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. Similar to the Munich Security Conference, presidents, top politicians, ambassadors, high-ranking military personnel and security experts from across the 28 Asia-Pacific states will convene from May 31 to June 6 to discuss security and defense policy. Scientists, mediators and defense-industry representatives will also attend the meeting, which is organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a renowned British think tank.
But right now, the Asia-Pacific region is awash with conflict potential, threatening the success of the talks. In recent years, China has been increasingly aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and, with the creation of artificial islands for military bases, it has given the jitters to its Asian neighbors and has put the U.S. and its allies Australia, Japan, France and Great Britain on high alert. Tensions surrounding unresolved Korean conflict have been ratcheted up following the recent missile test in North Korea. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict two other issues which are set to dominate the meeting: the escalating trade dispute between the U.S. and China and the Trump administration’s confrontation course against Iran.
Gunboat policy in the South China Sea
A speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has been scheduled for the morning of June 1. He is expected to outline the American perspective on the threats posed by North Korea and China, while explaining how the U.S. Department of Defense intends to implement its strategy of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific Ocean. Amid the escalating trade dispute between the two major world powers, the U.S. and China, the U.S. Navy sent two destroyers into the waters around the controversial Spratly and Paracel Islands in early May. China considers the islands to be part of its territory, despite a contradictory ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The warships invaded the sensitive 12-mile zone, making an unambiguous statement that Washington would not tolerate China’s territorial claims.
However, doubts abound on whether the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy goes beyond an aggressive gunboat policy in the South China Sea. It numbers among a string of unilateral moves by the U.S. government: policies which walk roughshod over allies’ concerns and their calls for restraint. These include the unilateral termination of the nuclear agreement, the risky escalation of the Iranian crisis, the deployment of aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, and the dispute with China which is currently spiraling into a trade war. Under President Trump, the government appears to solely focus on scoring points in the short-term by demonstrating its military muscle – and seems prepared to pay the price of any long-term harm that will ensue. Right now, we are witnessing a great power, which played a decisive role in shaping the liberal world order after the Second World War, as it is sacrificing its role as an international authority to a political style marked by ruthlessness and short-sightedness.
Diminishing capacity to rule?
In a recent essay published in the IISS magazine Survival, political scientist Hanns W. Maull describes how the international order depends on the capacity of the nation states: Whether it is possible to keep global warming below 2 degrees or to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals depends on national governments’ ability to cooperate. However, this necessitates resilient governments that work towards long-term strategies. This applies, in particular, to the more powerful states, those which can, therefore, be regarded as maintaining international order.
The Sustainable Governance Indicators of the Bertelsmann Stiftung (SGI) examine the resilience of industrialized countries and the sustainability and long-term nature of their policies. When asked how much influence strategic planning and advisory bodies have on government decision-making, the experts in the latest SGI country report on the U.S. came to a devastating verdict: "In most areas of government and policy, President Trump has shown virtually no interest in long-range planning, professional expertise, or even organized, careful deliberation. (…) In national security policy, he has favored senior military officers, but often relied on his own untutored preferences and impulses. His White House has had essentially no conventionally organized advisory and decision processes." This lack of advice, planning and strategy has already dented the U.S. government’s international operations. The SGI indicator for government cooperation with other states reveals how the U.S. loses two points and, with a score of 6 out of 10 possible points, ranking only around the middle of the range of countries surveyed. According to the country experts, a trend reversal is not to be expected for 2019 either. On the contrary: the pattern is expected to continue.
U.S. risks escalation in the South China Sea
At the international level, the Trump government’s rejection of multilateralism and its overestimation of its own power is triggering a backlash – as experienced by former President George W. Bush for his approach to the Iraq war. This rise in criticism is undermining the United States’ international reputation. If it is to lose its status as a global role model, the U.S. will eventually damage the normative, liberal-democratic international consensus that has shaped institutions like the United Nations ever since they were founded.
Australia, Japan, France and Great Britain are also showing strength by dispatching their warships on so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Unlike the U.S., however, they retain a distance of at least 12 nautical miles to the islands of Spratley and Paracel. These military operations protect the status quo of the freedom of the seas under international law: China’s hegemonic claim to the South China Sea cannot set a precedent. But it is the U.S. alone that wants to invade the 12-mile zone claimed by China, thereby running the risk of direct confrontation with Chinese naval units. As seen in other areas of its international policy, the Trump administration has steered itself onto a collision course, thus destabilizing the region and harming the international order through its uncoordinated solo missions.