WHILE many American commentators and politicians urge Congress to start the process of impeaching President Donald Trump, this has not deterred Indo-Pacific leaders from deepening their engagement with Trump.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — the three key leaders of Indo-Pacific nations who together with the United States putatively form the ‘Quad’ — are all seeking ‘special’ relationships with Trump and, through him, with the United States.
This extraordinary wooing of an American president may be a function of domestic circumstances. These three leaders are all conservatives and may see in Trump a great and powerful ally who endorses their views on issues such as strict border security, global terrorism, climate change and ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific’.
More importantly, they also find in Trump an uncompromising resolve to tackle a muscular China whose growing economic might and military assertiveness troubles these leaders greatly.
Despite Australia’s close economic links with China and repeated statements about the importance of China to Australia’s economy, Canberra has expressed great concerns about China’s rising influence in its domestic politics and harbours serious apprehension about its domestic security. Because of these apprehensions, it banned Huawei from the bidding process for 5G mobile networks.
India under Modi is unencumbered by alliance politics. Modi has emphasised ‘inclusiveness’ and engages China diplomatically. Yet, New Delhi is seriously wary of Beijing’s strategic designs.
The China–Pakistan nexus worries India immensely and New Delhi feels frustrated by Beijing’s opposition to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, not to mention the lingering border disputes and the status of the Dalai Lama in India. One consequence has been to allow, if not encourage, vociferous anti-China feelings among the Indian press.
Like India and Australia, Japan also engages China diplomatically and unhesitatingly recognises the PRC’s importance for its economy through trade and tourism. Yet its relationship with China remains under serious stress and strain because of their unresolved territorial claims and history disputes.
Today, diplomacy and cooperation of these Indo-Pacific leaders is not just confined to conventional bilateral and multilateral formats. In personal interactions they now praise each other profusely, congratulate one another on their domestic electoral successes and closely work on cultivating personal relationships. They seek US endorsement of their domestic and foreign policies and try to create common ground — sometimes for bilateral purposes and on occasions against the ‘other’.
Diplomacy has clearly moved to a significant degree from the institutional arena to the personal where leaders now bend over backwards to align themselves with the interests of the most powerful and influential through one-on-one relationships.
Abe was the first to engage Trump after the US elections and their personal relationship has since then blossomed on a first-name basis. Yet, despite Abe’s wooing of Trump as no past prime minister of Japan has ever done for their American counterpart, Japan has yet to see any award.
On his state visit to Washington, Australia’s Morrison reminded Trump of Australia’s 100 years of ‘mateship’ and declared his visit as the beginning of another 100 years of friendship. Trump in turn called Morrison ‘a man of titanium’.
Trump invited Morrison to a privileged state dinner and drew similarities between his own electoral successes and that of Morrison’s. Morrison endorsed Trump’s hard-line approach to US–China trade issues and even labelled China a ‘newly developed nation’, as well as reminding Beijing to step up its response to climate change.
In a rare opportunity provided by a host leader, Morrison attended a Trump rally in Wapakoneta, Ohio where the two leaders shared a stage and lauded each other with much praise. Morrison had presented evidence of Australia’s contribution to the American economy by inviting Trump to a new paper factory set up by Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt.
Trump called Morrison ‘a great gentleman’ and said that ‘they love him in Australia and now they love him in the United States of America, too’. When asked whether he supports Trump for another term, Morrison’s response was, albeit indirect, a ‘yes’.
A direct endorsement for a second term for Trump came from Modi at an event in Houston, Texas, ‘Howdy, Modi!’, where over 50,000 Indian Americans assembled to listen to the Indian Prime Minister. Modi came to sell his domestic political and economic agenda to the Indian diaspora, including his government’s recent decision to change the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Without naming Pakistan, Modi also ascribed the source of global terrorism from 9/11 to 26/11 to the country’s Muslim neighbour.
In attendance was Trump and many of his senior colleagues and members from both sides of politics. It was a rather unusual assembly for an event pitched at the Indian diaspora. Modi not only tried to convince his diasporic community of his economic policies and hard-line approach to global terrorism, he was also selling these policies to his American interlocutors, notably to Trump himself. Modi left out nothing while praising Trump and telling the audience how close their relationship was. Modi ended with the Hindi one-liner ‘abki baar, Trump Sarkar’ (‘another term for Trump’).
Modi, Abe and Morrison’s one-on-one engagement with Trump has been extraordinary but such engagement between world leaders has certainly not been isolated to these countries. Are these emerging, highly personalised relationships between world leaders ‘influence’ or even ‘interference’ in domestic politics? Are they an anomaly or a new normal for diplomacy? Personalised diplomacy can be a risky game as it may undermine institutions and even compromise the long-term national interests of countries. Time will tell.
Purnendra Jain is Professor at the Department of Asian Studies, the University of Adelaide.
This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons licence.