PacNet #17 – Modi, Trump and Strategic Convergence in the Indo-Pacific

President Donald Trump’s visit to India from Feb. 24-25, his first, represents an important moment in United States-India relations. Potential fracture lines were avoided and the way cleared for ongoing convergence. Having secured re-election with a strong majority in May 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents an important ongoing feature for US strategic calculations. Good personal chemistry between the two leaders remains evident.

One noteworthy aspect of Trump’s trip is that the US president did not go off script, sticking to a measured line of drawing India into convergence on the Indo-Pacific. Limits remain clear, in the shape of India’s much vaunted “strategic autonomy,” which makes any formal alliance a non-starter. Nevertheless, India is of high value for US strategy, as expressed in the Robert Blackwell and Ashley Tellis article in Foreign Affairs Sept-Oct. 2019 titled “The India dividend,” where “New Delhi remains Washington’s best hope in Asia” for constraining China, on account of India’s sheer size and weight.

Trump’s trip to India showed continuing Indian convergence with the US over delicate but deepening constraint of China, and opportunities for further development. This was evident in the joint statement released in February, entitled “Vision and Principles for the United States-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.” To what extent did this represent the US drawing India into its fold? What was Modi signing up to?

On the economic front, while no overall trade deal was announced, the two leaders agreed that good progress was made and that they expected an early signing. Extended military cooperation was flagged in the joint statement, where Modi and Trump “pledged to deepen defense and security cooperation, especially through greater maritime and space domain awareness and information sharing; joint cooperation; exchange of military liaison personnel; advanced training and expanded exercises between all services and special forces; closer collaboration on co-development and co-production of advanced defense components, equipment, and platforms; and partnership between their defense industries.”

In that vein, specific sales were announced: around $3 billion worth of American military helicopters, mostly for the Indian Navy. Its significance was not in the amount, but that it continues India’s slow move away from dependency on a pro-China Russia towards increasing military sales with the United States, and strengthens maritime cooperation between the US and India. The statement formally noted an “early,” i.e. impending, signing of a Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which will enable exchange of geo-spatial information, and complete the foundational military agreements already made.

The key significance of the visit was “Strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific,” an extended section of the joint statement. This is the first time a joint summit has had an explicit “Indo-Pacific” underpinning. The strategic imperative remains evident: the US feels threatened by China’s advance into the West Pacific and India feels threatened by China’s advance across the Indian Ocean. Strategic logic is simple; this common Indo-Pacific challenge posed by China is driving India-US strategic cooperation.

In the Indo-Pacific section of the joint statement, a close alignment of values was evident, in its affirmation that “a close partnership between the US and India is central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. This cooperation is underpinned by recognition of ASEAN centrality.” The inclusion of the moniker “inclusive” nods toward not appearing as overt containment of China. Still, the statement went on to pinpoint China-centred concerns: “adherence to international law and good governance; support for safety and freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the seas; unimpeded lawful commerce; and advocacy for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in accordance with international law.”

The advocacy by both leaders of “freedom of navigation and overflight” was a clear reference to the South China Sea, and indicated tacit Indian acceptance of the legitimacy of United States’ freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, increasing in frequency, which China of course objects to.

In a shot against China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) infrastructure initiative, the joint statement noted that “India and the United States remain committed to sustainable, transparent, quality infrastructure development in the region.” More specifically, and perhaps most significantly, Modi recorded India’s “interest” in the US Blue Dot Network (BDN) infrastructure initiative, a counter to China’s MSR initiative in the Indo-Pacific, which already has Australia and Japan on board. Both India and the US are now boycotting China’s MSR initiative.

Modi and Trump also agreed in the joint statement that “India and the United States took note of efforts towards a meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and solemnly urged that it not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law.” We can note their caveat on it being a “meaningful outcome,” as well as not being an agreement in which China restricts the involvement of outside countries like India and the United States.

The US can be happy with Modi’s agreement in the joint statement to “strengthen” three  mechanisms; namely the 2+2 foreign and defense ministers mechanism (started in 2018), the India-US-Japan trilateral summits (a format started in 2011, but in 2015 upgraded to foreign ministers level and with trilateral naval exercises also initiated), and the India-US-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral consultations (restarted in 2018) over which some Indian hesitations have been apparent. Further India-US cooperation was on show with their convening, from March 20 onward, of weekly Quad-plus discussions, in which the four Quad members were joined by New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea (but not China) to coordinate responses to the Covid-19 virus.

Finally, the statement said that “Prime Minister Modi and President Trump looked forward to enhanced maritime domain awareness sharing among the United States, India, and other partners.” This is indicative of India’s and the United States’ naval relationships with countries like Australia and Japan, but also France, Vietnam, and Indonesia—all of whom have concerns about China and are strengthening defense links with both India and the US. This is all part of an emerging cross-bracing strategic geometry in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinese state media’s attempts to undermine such US-India convergence were evident. Its state-run Global Times on Feb. 23 said that“Modi must maintain strategic independence of Trump pressure tactics.” The next day, as Trump arrived in India, it stressed continuing divisions. On Feb. 25, as the trip concluded, the Global Times was somewhat dismissive, claiming India “won’t do US bidding against China.” Indian opinion was very different, with the New Delhi Times reporting that “China’s intransigence drives India to US fold.”

In retrospect, Trump’s visit and the agreements made represent not so much the US getting India to do its “bidding,” but rather this ongoing and mutually recognized “strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific” directly acknowledged for the first time at this summit level. Washington now has a good opportunity to further deepen strategic cooperation with India during 2020.

David Scott ( is a prolific writer, Indo-Pacific analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, member of the Center for International Maritime Security, and Associate Member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

YL Blog #23 – Pragmatism Versus Principles: How Regional Actors Are Navigating the China-U.S. Standoff in the Indo-Pacific


The 33rd Asian Pacific Roundtable, held 24 to 26 June 2019, was enveloped by two major developments in the region: the start of the U.S.-China trade dispute and the publication of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which commits to “sustain American influence in the region to ensure favorable balances of power and safeguard the free and open international order.” With the background of the major power standoff, it was clear that Southeast Asian nations were questioning how to navigate what was often characterized as a binary security choice: side with China or the United States.  However, in reality, the various roundtable discussions at the APR, revealed that few ASEAN countries felt compelled to choose between the U.S. and China. Rather, the question they seemed to be grappling with was how to best utilize the current focus on their region to support their national interests and how to continue engaging with China without being negatively affected.

This was perhaps best exemplified in the selection and placement of the second plenary session on Asia-Europe partnership in which they explored how the EU can get more involved in the security arena in Southeast Asia. Speakers emphasized how the EU’s involvement would help balance the global power structure and act as a pacifying force between China and the U.S. The session came off as a weak plea for someone else to get involved in the region and provide more security resources (I read, “money”) and asked for a strong commitment from the EU to stay involved. Is this a desire to side with the U.S. vision for the region but maintain a face of not openly siding with the U.S.? Probably not. The EU has many shared interests with the U.S. For example, France updated its Indo-Pacific Strategy in May 2019 and highlighted the nuclear threat of North Korea, the militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea, terrorism, and the dangers of climate change.  However, the plenary speakers, rather than call for a free and open Indo-Pacific, kept emphasizing that China’s rise would not be stopped and that the region has to engage with China, and one speaker positively noted the common stereotype that Europe is soft on China. Southeast Asia is looking for partners that will work with China. 

Are we all in a Catch-22 scenario? One of the Japanese speakers astutely asked, is there a free and open Indo-Pacific that includes China? That would be ideal, but the threat the region and international order face is one in which a rising power is trying to gain enough influence to re-write an economic system in its favor at the expense of weaker states. In the first plenary session, Colby Eldridge from the Center for New American Security, broad-stroke described the U.S. intents in the region as one of checking the rising strength and assertiveness of China in the region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. In his recent opinion piece, he says, “The interests of the US are in preserving and protecting the sovereign freedom of nation states, so that we can trade and interact with them without undue encumbrance.” He goes on to address Southeast Asia saying, “You may not be interested in strategic reality, to paraphrase Russian intellectual Leon Trotsky, but it is interested in you. That choice is not between total affiliation with the United States or with China. But it is a choice as to whether you will preserve your sovereignty and national freedom.” A fellow Young Leader brought to my attention a recent incident in the Philippines in which President Duterte absolved China of any militant when a Chinese ship did a hit-and-run of Philippine fisherman in Philippine waters. Wanting to pursue a positive relationship with China meant not asserting the state’s maritime sovereignty. Where will this lead in the long run?

The U.S.-China standoff overshadowed a conference that is supposed to focus on ASEAN. No one in the region wants to pick a side on that. Does the US want people to pick a side? Yes, but not a pro-US side, rather a pro-Free and open Indo-Pacific vision for the region, which would require states to stand up to Chinese abuse of national sovereignty and predatory lending. Unfortunately, the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” seems to be synonymous to a message of “U.S., yes; China, no.” Southeast Asian states are being pragmatic, but what will be the cost on them and the international order in the long term? It is regrettable to mention than in the face of a bilateral security choice, multilateral efforts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership may have been the better strategic choice for a region that doesn’t want to choose only between the U.S. and China.  

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #6 – Three Scenarios for the Quad and for ASEAN

The reunion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) in 2017 sparked concerns on several grounds, including perceptions that it would be a threat to multilateralism centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as a means to contain China. Originally banded together for aid efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, the group – consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – initially appeared to reflect a renewed convergence of strategic interests between these four major democracies in the region. Over time, however, questions have been raised about the Quad’s viability.

Yet, the fact that the Quad continues to meet – mostly at the senior officials’ level, although its inaugural foreign ministerial meeting was held in September 2019 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – suggests that despite challenges, the four-member arrangement is likely to become a salient aspect of the regional security architecture. It would thus be worthwhile to consider how it could interact with ASEAN going forward, given that the latter is generally considered the primary multilateral organization in the Indo-Pacific. Here, we discuss three possible scenarios in which the Quad may evolve, and how ASEAN should respond.

Scenario One: Strengthened military cooperation

This scenario suggests the commencement of Quad meetings involving defense ministers or senior officials in the defense ministry, or even the inauguration of military exercises among the four countries. Annual Malabar joint naval exercises are already carried out between the United States, India, and Japan. Including Australia as a permanent participant would be a significant gesture pointing to a more coordinated quadrilateral security arrangement. To be fair, quadrilateral military exercises appear unlikely. For instance, India refused Australian participation to the 2017 and 2018 Malabar exercises despite Canberra’s bids to be part of the major multilateral naval drill. A meeting among defense senior officials, however, may be easier to achieve.

One way for ASEAN to respond to such a scenario would be to reinforce the idea of regional defense cooperation through the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), a platform that involves the 10 ASEAN member states and dialogue partners such as Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. While the ADMM-Plus is certainly not meant to compete with the Quad, its strength vis-à-vis the latter is its inclusivity. Promoting ADMM-Plus defense cooperation, be it through joint military exercises or other forms of interaction, would thus be useful in underlining the importance of an open and inclusive regional security architecture.

Scenario Two: The Quad falls apart

Quad 1.0 fell apart shortly after it was conceived when Australia walked away in consideration of Chinese sensibilities. While nuanced differences among the Quad countries have narrowed since, the viability of the grouping is uncertain insofar as it lacks a convincingly cohesive vision and an operational agenda. More significantly, the viability of the group remains largely susceptible to each country’s relations with China. In recent months, we have seen a significant warming of ties between Japan and China, with the two countries heralding a “new era” of bilateral relations. Following its non-aligned tradition, India has a conventionally different approach in dealing with China compared to Japan and Australia, which are US allies. On the other hand, Washington has dropped the niceties, suggesting that the Quad could be used to ensure that China “retains only its proper place in the world.” Given these differences, it is difficult to say that the Quad will not fall susceptible to the same reasons that led to its falling apart the first time, especially if the United States envisages the group as taking some sort of coordinated action against Beijing.

Despite debates about the Quad’s challenge to ASEAN centrality, the dissolution of the Quad may not necessarily be beneficial to ASEAN as a second suspension of the Quad could embolden revisionist powers to try to change the regional status quo. If the Quad falls apart again, the best option for ASEAN would be to seize the opportunity and reinforce its central place in the regional security architecture. This means strengthening ASEAN’s capacity as an independent actor and emphasizing the relevance of ASEAN-centric platforms to regional countries.

Scenario Three: The status quo

This is the most likely scenario for the Quad in the foreseeable future, as regular consultations among the four countries continue without significant stepping up of cooperation. For what it is worth, the revival of the Quad provides a useful dialogue mechanism for discussions to be had over shared values and interests in the region. At the same time, it is clear that the Quad countries have varying priorities and perceptions of the region. The fact that the Quad meetings so far have failed to produce a single joint statement signals the struggle within the grouping to reconcile views on critical issues. It is thus realistic to expect that the Quad maintains its status quo for the time being.

Here, ASEAN should work to ensure that even as the Quad continues its consultative dialogue, the “hub” of the broad multilateralism remains through ASEAN. This means, for example, providing a reason for all four Quad members to continue committing to ASEAN-centric platforms. In this sense, ASEAN should consider how it could continue to serve the interests of its dialogue partners. This could involve, as some have advocated, making the leaders-level East Asia Summit the premier regional forum for exchanges and discussions on strategic issues. Ensuring that non-ASEAN countries have a reason to consistently engage with ASEAN would serve the latter’s objectives in the context of ASEAN centrality and relevance. Going forward, the Quad’s value is expected to remain in the potential that it holds more than that of which it demonstrates. It is important for ASEAN to adopt a commensurate approach in response.

Amanda Trea Phua ( is a Senior Analyst with the United States Programme and Sarah Teo ( is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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PacNet #4 – Despite Stumbles, US Engagement with ASEAN Runs Deep

This article originally appeared in Global Asia and is republished with permission

The regrettably low-level US representation at the annual summits convened in November in Bangkok by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) were met by intricate displays of ASEAN’s displeasure. Neither, fortunately, reflect the structural strengths and scope of US-Southeast Asia relations that stem from the alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and the core aspirations of Southeast Asia.

The interrelated aspirations of countries in ASEAN are nation and state building, ensuring strategic autonomy or agency, and asserting centrality in convening and thereby partially shaping extra-regional interactions. The US—through the core aspects of its diplomacy, commerce, security, and civil society cooperation with Southeast Asia—supports, imperfectly, these ambitions. The region’s high-demand signal for the US as the partner of choice and Southeast Asia’s serious, though mostly privately expressed, anxiety about Chinese assertiveness is evident in the headline-grabbing notice and care it gives to US attendance at regional gatherings, and more consequentially, in the off-front-page mutual efforts to build and sustain bilateral relations.

A first aspect is that the US approach toward rules, norms, and values espoused in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) represents more continuity than departure from past policies. Southeast Asia has responded with its “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). The convergences between FOIP and AOIP outweigh the differences. Meanwhile, China’s proposed conceptions of regional order (for example, the New Security Concept, and the nine-dash line in the South China Sea) have not even spawned responsive versions, much less synergy, from Southeast Asia. Indeed, the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is viewed with suspicion among some in Southeast Asia for calling for exclusive sharing of fisheries and energy resources only among regional states and China, and restricting the ability of regional states to conduct security relations with the US and its regional allies.

The expectation that China’s economic gravity will inexorably “pull” Southeast Asia toward a common destiny with Beijing confuses laws of nature with unpredictable socio-economic and political trajectories. It was once thought that Japan would economically lead a skein of geese in Southeast Asia. Such expectations also underweight the many ways in which Southeast Asia interacts with the US economically beyond trade (e.g., remittances, capital markets, government securities, and the use of the dollar, to name a few). If, as Southeast Asians appear to fear, a common destiny with China means contending with a Beijing-led hierarchical order, there is little appetite for it in an increasingly integrated region informed by modern nationalism.

A second aspect of the US approach is that it has allies and friends (Japan, South Korea, Australia, UK, France, and India, among others) working cooperatively and proactively with it in Southeast Asia. American allies and partners working together in Southeast Asia multiply US power and engagement in ways that meet Southeast Asian aspirations on issues ranging from Mekong region development to human and drug trafficking to capacity-building in maritime domain awareness. An example is the November 2019 US-ROK Joint Fact Sheet on their regional cooperation efforts.

A third element of the US approach is that it is not an irredentist state in Southeast Asia. It does not articulate flimsy historical claims in the South China Sea in contravention of international tribunal rulings. Put simply, the US does not covet the territory of Southeast Asian countries. Nor is the US a “grudge nurturer” harboring hangovers from history as rapprochements with the UK, Japan, Germany, and Vietnam—and even China—demonstrate.

Finally, the US supports ASEAN, a key vehicle of Southeast Asian aspirations to consolidate their countries, prevent intrusions on their sovereignty, and maintain strategic agency. At times, it seems that the US is more supportive of ASEAN than even some within the association.

Such core aspects of the US approach to Southeast Asia are reflected in specific relationships. In this 187th year of bilateral relations, the US and Thailand may not be at “peak alliance” due to the fortunate absence of a regional war to prosecute, and Bangkok’s own political and foreign policy drift over four decades, but the relationship is enduring and adapting. The 2017 Washington-Bangkok normalization following Thailand’s 2014 coup has paved the way for renewed defense cooperation culminating in the newly announced US-Thailand Joint Vision 2020. On the economic front, Thailand remains a growing investment destination for US companies, and trade squabbles over the generalized system of preferences (GSP) involve only a fraction of total two-way trade. Meanwhile, the 121-year-old US-Philippine relationship, which has seen its own share of ups and downs, remains more robust in reality than rhetoric and general reporting would suggest. US-Philippine cooperation during the siege of Marawi, maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea, ongoing efforts to fully implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and most importantly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reassurances on the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), provide ballast despite some political turbulence in relations.

Washington remains a significant trade, investment, remittance, and employment partner for Manila. The vital US-Singapore strategic relationship, though not an alliance, has been enhanced twice in five years. A key provision permitting US forces access to Singapore’s military facilities for transit and logistics support was extended in September 2019 for 15 years. And in December the countries announced establishment of a Singapore Air Force permanent fighter training detachment on Guam. Singapore also remains a massive trade, investment, and corporate headquarters partner for the US.

America’s other Southeast Asian partnerships continue to develop. The US-Vietnam relationship is witnessing steady improvements on both the commercial and defense sides of the ledger. Of course, there are constraints and disagreements, but Hanoi’s receptivity to mutual high-level visits and public displays of defense cooperation are examples of its interest in improving ties with Washington in its ASEAN chairmanship year. New partnerships with Malaysia and Indonesia continue to develop across the spectrum of cooperation, and renewed full diplomatic re-engagement with Myanmar has not been derailed despite the human rights atrocities there.

Current US-Southeast Asia relations are wider and deeper on both sides than in the past two generations. Beyond official and traditional commercial and security ties, the engagements between US and Southeast Asian civil societies are less well known. There are over 90 sister relationships between the US and Southeast Asian countries that help to build local people-to-people connections as well as educational, familial, and business relations. Some 7.4 million Americans trace their ethnic origins to Southeast Asia. Remittances from the US to the region range from 56% of the total for Vietnam to 19% for Laos. Myriad educational exchanges and scholarships ranging from the Fulbright Program to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) bring tens of thousands of Southeast Asians to the US—but alas, not enough Americans to Southeast Asia.

Tourism between the US and Southeast Asia is robust, with some 5 million people exchanging visits. It is no wonder that among major regional countries, the US is viewed by publics as their key ally or partner—even as the same publics, including in the US, view China’s economic development as welcome. These “everyday” but generally “out of sight” US-Southeast Asia interactions undergird the official alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and Southeast Asia’s core aspirations, despite public relations stumbles such as the level of US representation at Southeast Asia summits in Bangkok in November. There is no room for complacency and lots of hard work lies ahead, but there is no need to panic about U.S.-Southeast Asia relations.

Dr. Satu Limaye ( is Vice President of the East West Center and Director, East West Center in Washington and Senior Advisor, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). He is the creator of the Asia Matters for America Initiative, founding editor of the Asia-Pacific Bulletin, and an editor of Global Asia.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.