What will be the Shape of US Indo-Pacific Policy under President Trump?

11 April 2017 Balaji Chandramohan, FDI Visiting Fellow Download PDF

Key Points

  • The Trump Administration is contemplating the structure of its forward policy in the wider Indo-Pacific as it looks to address China’s increased assertiveness in the region.
  • Despite the talk of greater burden sharing, Trump will not end the US alliances in the region, which have served, and will continue to serve, US commercial and security interests well.
  • From the US perspective, and in keeping with the grand strategy of the “Balancing of Power”, it is vital to contain Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean and in the greater Indo-Pacific region.
  • The Pivot to Asia of the Obama Administration – largely inherited from the George W. Bush presidency – is likely to continue under Trump.


As the new administration in the United States contemplates what policy to adopt in the wider Indo-Pacific with a view to dealing with increased Chinese assertiveness, it will be imperative for partners such as Australia and India to watch closely for signs from Washington of that Indo-Pacific strategy.


During the presidential election campaign, Donald Trump accused close allies, such as Japan and South Korea, of having had a free ride with US military support since the end of the Second World War and promised a tougher approach to sharing the burdens of alliances. In reality, however, it is highly unlikely that Trump will do away with the US alliances in the region despite indicating such an approach during his election campaign. Those alliance systems have served US commercial and security interests very well.

US security interests have been well served by the continental and maritime alliances forged under the “Balance of Power” grand strategy directed towards continental powers from Eurasia such as China. Under that strategy, it is vital to contain China’s presence in the Indian Ocean and in the greater Indo-Pacific. It is a notion that has been emphasised in various Quadrennial Defence Reviews and which, perhaps with some adjustments, may be continued under the Trump Administration.

On the other hand, since its founding, the United States has consistently pursued a grand strategy focussed on acquiring and maintaining pre-eminent power over various rivals, first on the North American continent, then in the Western hemisphere, and, finally, globally through sea lines of communication.

During the Cold War, this strategy was manifested in the form of “containment,” which provided a unifying vision of how the United States could protect its systemic primacy as well as its security, ensure the safety of its allies, and eventually enable the defeat of its adversary, the Soviet Union. A variety of policies were used, including deliberately limiting Soviet connectivity with the major global economic centres of power, sustaining a diverse and sometimes overlapping set of “mutual security agreements” and formal alliances.

In the aftermath of the Western victory in the Cold War and the dissolution of containment, US policymakers have struggled to conceptualise a grand strategy that would prove adequate to the nation’s new circumstances beyond the generic desire to protect the liberal international order underwritten by American power in the post-war era. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the Cold War era grand strategy of containing the Soviet Union while preserving the industrial and technological supremacy of the United States could be repurposed and implemented against China, given the economic linkages between the two.

Washington’s current approach towards Beijing, one that values China’s economic and political integration into the liberal international order at the ultimate expense of the United States’ global pre-eminence and long-term strategic interests, hardly amounts to a “grand” strategy, much less an effective one. The need for a more coherent US response to increasing Chinese power is long overdue.

The Geopolitical Importance of the Indo-Pacific to the United States

The term “Indo-Pacific” combines the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Western Pacific Region (WP) – inclusive of the contiguous seas off East and South-East Asia – into a singular regional construct. There are some variations based on the specific preferences of countries. For instance, the United States prefers to use the term “Indo-Asia-Pacific” to encompass the entire swathe of the Indian and Pacific oceans. That inclusivity enables the US to identify as a resident power in this important region. Elsewhere, though, Indo-Pacific is the generally preferred term.

Chinese authoritarianism and domineering maritime behaviour, its economic and military modernisation and nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities have begun to challenge the US predominance in the region, while its expansionist ventures have threatened the territorial integrity of countries like India, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. The US rebalance in the Indo-Pacific is thus vital to US interests as it seeks to invest in strategic capabilities in the region to create (or maintain) a balance of power. Within those efforts, the attributes of rebalancing that can be painted as an anti-China strategy have irked Beijing considerably.

US interests in the Indo/Asia-Pacific centre on its role as an extra-regional power and an offshore balancer in the region. The defence treaties that the US has with Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines have often been seen as a strategic partner’s reiteration of its commitment to the security of those countries. Through the Pivot to Asia, the US seeks to reassure its allies that it stands by them in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

If, however, the US were to take a more confrontational stance towards China under the Trump presidency, it would lead to a geopolitical imbalance in the region and a highly volatile western Pacific, with the potential for spill-over into the Indian Ocean component of the Indo-Pacific. To that extent, the US should refrain from deliberate provocations and the creation of an explicitly anti-Chinese regional alliance. The US, and the existing world order, would also benefit from closer engagement with China on issues like Iran and North Korea.

The concept of grand strategy is a coherent theory of national security based on the careful linkage of means and ends: It establishes priorities, accounts for trade-offs among those priorities and aligns available resources accordingly. The United States has political, economic, and security interests that span the globe, as well as the unmatched military and economic capabilities to shape or respond to an extraordinary range of international challenges. A grand strategy, in theory, disciplines the use of diplomatic, military and economic power, marshalling it in service of specific objectives. Without some semblance of a grand strategy in a complex and competitive international environment, a country could run adrift.

The US geostrategy is also partially based on the concept of the twentieth-century Dutch-American geostrategist and the godfather of the containment strategy, Nicholas John Spykman, in that ‘whoever controlled the Rimland rules Eurasia; whoever rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world’. Typically, the Rimland refers to the maritime fringes of the Eurasian continent. Spykman emphasised the need for the US to have partners in the Rimland to counter the rise of the Heartland (the Soviet Union) and the Middle Kingdom (China).

Implications for China of the US Pivot Approach       

The United States’ pivot to Asia was a continuation of Spykman’s Grand Strategic vision and that rationale was understood under Barack Obama’s presidency. It is likely to continue under the Trump presidency although exactly how it will be demonstrated remains unclear because it is not certain that the Trump White House will continue the steps taken by its predecessor (with some small modifications, at least), or if it might choose to discard them in favour of a new approach to underlining the US commitment to the region.

First, for instance, the Obama Administration intended the pivot to demonstrate the commitment of the US to focussing its power and resources on the Indo-Pacific and, specifically, the Asia-Pacific component of that region.

Second, the Obama White House made a concerted effort to present a detailed strategic case for the importance of the Asia-Pacific theatre to the long-term domestic and foreign policy interests of the United States.

Third, a plan of action was put forward to bolster American influence in the region through deepened economic interaction, greater diplomatic engagement, stronger efforts to promote human rights and democratisation, and a strengthened US military presence. As the “pivot” took shape, it became one of the Obama Administration’s most prominent – and most critiqued – foreign policy initiatives.

Beyond the important commitment of presidential time, the Obama Administration took a number of other unprecedented steps to deepen US diplomatic and political engagement with the region. Particular emphasis was given to South-East Asia, as the connector of the Asia-Pacific and the Australasian part of the Indo-Pacific, an area that has received comparatively little American attention in the recent past.

In a visible effort to further underwrite Washington’s support to the broader Indo-Pacific, the Obama Administration acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in South-East Asia in 2009, and established a dedicated diplomatic mission to the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta in 2010 – the first ASEAN dialogue partner to do so – and also joined the annual ASEAN-led East Asia Summit process in 2011. The annual US-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting was launched in 2009, involving the heads of all 11 countries. In 2013, the “leaders’ meeting” was upgraded to a “summit,” the third of which, in November 2015, announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership” between the United States and ASEAN.

The commitment of the Trump Administration to any and all such measures remains open to conjecture.


One of the strategic challenges that the Trump Administration will face will is to reassert the maritime grand strategic vision of the US for the Indo-Pacific. Such an initiative will be an extension of curtailing China’s maritime expansion in the region. That can only be attained through Washington’s reassurances to regional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines and Australia, and to new partners such as India.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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