from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

Want a Free and Open Indo-Pacific? Get India Into APEC

November 13, 2017

U.S. President Donald J. Trump holds a bilateral meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, November 13, 2017. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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President Donald J. Trump just delivered a speech in Da Nang, Vietnam, that outlined his administration’s strategy toward Asia—with a heavy emphasis on a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” He should start by supporting Indian membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).

Asia’s third-largest economy—yes, it’s India—remains on the outside of this vital grouping despite a membership request dating back more than twenty years. India in APEC would help offset the now-overwhelming influence of the Chinese economy, while also embedding India in a forum that would nudge it toward further economic reform. It would also send a strong message to the region about increasing free and open trade at a time such a signal from the Trump administration is sorely needed. Finally, supporting India’s APEC bid would demonstrate a U.S. commitment to help strategic partner India gain the greater role it seeks in institutions of global governance.

Trump’s speech in Da Nang built on pre-trip Asia messaging from his cabinet. In the weeks leading to the president’s trip, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both used the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” in high-profile testimony and remarks, underscoring India’s geographic connection to the Asia-Pacific as a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s strategic thinking. How Washington will specifically help realize this idea, however, has not been fleshed out.

Remedying India’s exclusion from the region’s largest economic grouping would be a natural step, especially since New Delhi has been snubbed on this front since the 2010 expiration of APEC’s moratorium on new members. The Barack Obama administration never got beyond vaguely “welcoming India’s interest in APEC membership.” It neither pledged explicit support for India’s entry to the grouping, nor expended any diplomatic capital to make this a reality.

Those cool to the idea of India in APEC cite New Delhi’s notorious intransigence in trade negotiations. They worry that India would gum up the functioning of a successful organization. But APEC is not a binding negotiation forum; it works through dialogue and action plans to collectively advance “free and open trade and investment” in the region. The benefits of an APEC that includes India far outweigh the potential costs.

With the Trump administration’s departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Washington’s economic leverage in Asia has receded just at the time China’s trade and investment links, symbolized by the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, have increased. By pulling India, the world’s seventh-largest economy, inside APEC, Washington could help the larger Indo-Pacific region balance its economic center of gravity better. At the same time, embedding India within a non-binding grouping committed to free and open trade will help India’s reformers with the external validation they need to explain why reform will unleash the Indian economy further.

As important, with Asian allies and partners confused about where Washington stands on the question of free and open trade—having left the TPP, the Trump administration is fighting with Canada and Mexico on the North American Free Trade Agreement and with South Korea on the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement—a show of support for APEC as an institution by pushing for India’s entrance could reaffirm the American voice in favor of trade. APEC is an institution that helps set the global agenda, and Asia could use a sign that the United States supports free and open trade to prevent a cascade of protectionism.

Finally, if the president went to bat for India at APEC, it would show that Washington understands the inequity of keeping India on the outside, especially with the country’s dramatic economic growth since APEC’s 1989 founding. Today, the Indian economy is larger than Group of Seven members Canada and Italy. For New Delhi to remain absent from Asia’s most important economic grouping even though the Indian economy now helps power global growth makes little sense institutionally and economically. At the same time, U.S. support would showcase American commitment to help India gain the more central global leadership role the country seeks.

Of all the steps the president could take to make the “free and open Indo-Pacific” a more tangible reality, unqualified support for Indian membership in APEC would be the most obvious. Though the chance to support Indian APEC membership would have been most meaningful at the APEC summit itself, it’s still possible to align around this step in the coming months. Let’s hope they decide to take it up soon. Without economic ballast, the administration’s admirable strategic goal of making India a key stakeholder in a democratic and prosperous Asia will fall short.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be out in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).

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