Renaming Asia

National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster speaks about U.S. President Donald Trump's upcoming trip to Asia during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 2, 2017. McMaster and President Donald Trump have both referred to the Asia-Pacific region as the “Indo-Pacific.” (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump isn't just remaking American foreign policy in Asia by tearing up trade deals and getting tough on North Korea. His administration is giving the region a whole new name.

For decades, the vast expanse of ocean and continent that spans from Australia to India has been referred to in Washington as the "Asia-Pacific" — a region where the U.S. views itself as a benign and stabilizing presence.

But as Trump prepares for a five-nation Asian tour, White House officials and even the president himself are steering clear of that term and using "Indo-Pacific" instead.

The national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, used it repeatedly when he previewed the trip for reporters Nov. 2. He boasted that the president "has placed 43 calls to Indo-Pacific leaders" since he took office. Trump also used the term in public remarks at a Cabinet meeting Nov. 1.

A cynic might say it's yet another effort to distance the upstart Republican president from his predecessor Barack Obama, who invested much time and effort to "pivot" American foreign policy from the military quagmires it had encountered in the Mideast to the fast-growing economies of Asia.

"Let there be no doubt," Obama told the Australian parliament in November 2011. "In the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in."

Fast-forward six years, and the U.S. administration wants to convey the same message, but with a tweak — to the nose of its main rival in the region, China.

By using "Indo-Pacific," the administration wants to propagate the idea that it's a region that stretches far beyond China's backyard and the tiger economies of East Asia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointed the way two weeks ago when he spoke about expanding strategic ties with India, which shares U.S. concerns about China's rise. He talked about partnering with democratic allies, also including Australia and Japan, which would stand up for international norms flouted by Beijing.

In his speech, he used "Indo-Pacific" 15 times. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether this reflected a change in policy.

The terminology isn't revolutionary. "Indo-Pacific" has been common currency among some foreign policy experts for several years and has been used by India, Indonesia and Australia.

It will do little to counter perceptions that Trump has dialed back American engagement in Asia, by trashing trade deals and stoking tension, but the shifting semantics is likely to sow confusion.

At Trump's first stop on his 12-day tour, Hawaii, the U.S. Pacific Command already has a moniker of its own: "Indo-Asia-Pacific."

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