Trump's Indo-Pacific push risks Quad strain for NZ


US President Donald Trump is talking up a new approach to the "Indo-Pacific". Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

ANALYSIS: Donald Trump wants to pivot to the Indo-Pacific and may want to revive a 'Quad' alliance between Japan, the US, Australia, and India. Sam Sachdeva explains why Jacinda Ardern will have to tread carefully.

To say Donald Trump enjoys the spotlight may be the understatement of the century.

But the US President has provided yet another reminder at the Apec summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Just as he did with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Trump is “counter-programming” overseas: the meeting between the leaders of the 11 remaining TPP countries will take place at the same time as his keynote address at the Apec CEO Summit.

This may be simply down to the organisers; however, given one of his first actions as president was withdrawing the US from the TPP, it’s not unreasonable to suspect whether he may have wanted to rub some salt into the wound.

Yet Trump’s speech is also a reminder that Apec members have bigger issues on their plate than the multilateral trade deal - including the United States’ approach to the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States’ original decision to join TPP negotiations was part of previous president Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific “pivot”, an attempt to provide a counterweight to China’s growing influence in the region.

With Trump pulling out of the deal and focussing inwards, there has been some concern about what the US shrinking away from its traditional leadership role will mean for others in the region.

Trump’s Apec speech is expected to address his vision for the region, in part through his own pivot - not to the Asia-Pacific, but to the “Indo-Pacific”.

According to Quartz, the term has been on the rise since the early 2010s, but unused by any American president before Trump.

What exactly his Indo-Pacific vision may entail remains to be seen, although we should have a better idea by the end of Friday.

The clue seems to be in the name: Trump may be hoping to enlist India to his cause along with other Asian countries as ballast against China.

India has had gripes of its own with China over border skirmishes and the latter’s activities in the South China Sea, and could see value in joining other countries in the region to push back.

The Quad

That could come through the resumption of the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping of Japan, the US, Australia, and India that was active for only a year.

That seems certain to rile China, which sent a formal protest to the four countries when they set up the dialogue in 2007.

Although Australia withdrew from the Quad in 2008, recent reports about Chinese influence at Australian universities and through political donations has led to a more hawkish stance from Canberra.

Whether all four countries can agree on a common approach, and what approach they take to China, will determine what value it has.

What’s unclear is exactly how New Zealand fits into the picture.

Under the previous National government, John Key and Bill English along with their foreign ministers made a virtue of New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy”, maintaining security ties with the United States while building economic links to China.

Yet as foreign policy experts like Victoria University’s Robert Ayson have noted, it’s an open question as to whether that approach will continue to bear fruit, and New Zealand may need to strengthen its relationships throughout the region.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was quick to downplay any dramatic change in other countries’ approach to the region, describing the Quad as “existing architecture as it were”.

“I think the United States' engagement with this region, positive engagement with this region, can only be a good thing as we continue to navigate an increasingly tense environment...

“That group of nations have met and sought to work together before, that is not a new combination, it’s not a new grouping, it is simply a restatement of what has happened in the past.”

But while New Zealand would not add heft to either the American or Chinese side, its role as a “middle power” may lead to both countries and their partners leaning on Ardern and company to take a stronger stance one way or the other.

For the moment, the TPP is the pressing issue for her Government. But whether the deal is signed or scrapped, managing the US-China relationship is set to be an issue for years, if not decades, to come.