On the opening day of his final overseas trip in early December 2016, Ashton Carter spent the morning at a port a short helicopter ride south of Tokyo, on the decks of the Izumo, the largest naval vessel built by Japan since the end of World War II.
For a U.S. defense secretary trying to highlight one of President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievements, the “pivot to Asia,” there could hardly have been a better symbol than an 814-foot-long mini-aircraft carrier, built by an ally, Japan, which has been traditionally reluctant to parade its military prowess. The carrier was commissioned in 2010, completed in 2013 during Obama’s term, and stationed at Yokosuka — America’s largest overseas naval base.
Carter’s words on the deck of the Izumo — about the U.S.-Japan alliance being a two-way street — were more than a thinly veiled rebuke to incoming President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly scorned the value of such alliances. They were also the beginning of a debate that is creating existential dread in East Asia, where pro-U.S. governments fear Trump represents not just a reversal of Obama’s Asia pivot, but the harbinger of a withdrawal from the region altogether.
In the months leading up to November 2016, as they were preparing to leave office, Obama and his cabinet surveyed the Asia-Pacific with barely concealed approval. In contrast with the religious extremism and primeval violence of the Middle East, the people of Asia, Obama told the Atlantic, don’t begin their days “thinking about how to kill Americans.”
Or, as Carter put it in a speech at a security conference at the Ronald Reagan Library near Los Angeles before flying to Tokyo, Pax Americana had anchored “economic miracle after miracle” in Asia. “Populations are growing, education has improved, freedom and self-determination have spread, economies have grown more interconnected, and military spending and cooperation are both increasing,” he said.
But the man who is replacing Obama, Donald Trump, won the White House by tapping ruthlessly into a darker view of Asia’s postwar renaissance, which inflamed grassroots disquiet in the United States at one of Pax Americana’s toughest selling points.
In Trump’s view, not only is the United States protecting Asia’s booming economies at excessive cost, it is also opening the American market to their exports in ways they would never reciprocate themselves. As Trump’s chief strategist, Steven Bannon, a hard-line nationalist who provided a platform for racist commentary while running Breibart.com, put it, “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.”
During his campaign, Trump criticized Japan and South Korea for free-riding on American security guarantees. He said both countries should get nuclear weapons, if they wished, to reduce their reliance on Washington. On trade, he singled out China, and Japan again, for cheating Americans in cahoots with the local satraps of globalization, namely Wall Street and big business. He vowed to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which promised to strengthen economic ties between Washington and essentially all the region’s countries, except China, which was excluded from the deal.
But Pax Americana in East Asia, including trade liberalization and a commitment to military alliances, had become so much a part of the political furniture in Washington that Trump’s assaults on long-standing Asian policy on the campaign trail were barely answered by his opponents. The arguments in favor of the policy, which depend on the United States committing sufficient resources to maintain its primacy as a global superpower, were so rusty inside the Beltway that Trump’s American critics struggled to make them with any conviction. To them, the policy seemed as natural as breathing; but to Americans unused to thinking about global balancing and trade ties, Trump’s words found traction.
They found less traction with America’s Asian allies, whose fears ceased to be hypothetical upon Trump’s election victory. Hence, Carter’s reassuring two-week trip starting Dec. 3.
Carter’s itinerary illustrated the vast sweep of America’s global military footprint, and the expectations that come with it, from allies and partners alike. Starting in Japan, America’s largest bilateral military alliance, Carter traveled to India, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Baghdad, Israel, and Italy before ending his trip in the United Kingdom. With such a schedule, it’s no wonder that on the first leg from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Carter’s Pentagon doctor walked the aisles of Air Force 3, which transports the defense secretary, handing out sleeping pills to a soon-to-be-jetlagged team of journalists and policymakers.
But not all stops on the itinerary were of equal importance. Though America’s footprint is sprawling, U.S. global power depends on holding the line in East Asia. Other regions pale in comparison. When the United States and its Western allies debated how to confront the threat posed by the radical Islamist State, they didn’t pause to factor in the impact of the war on gross domestic product or oil prices.
China and Japan, by contrast, are global powers, with the world’s second- and third-largest economies, backed by robust, advanced militaries. Along with South Korea and Taiwan, they sit at the nexus of the tightly integrated seaborne trade network that sustains global business and U.S. consumption.
Any clash between China and Japan or Taiwan, or a conflict involving North Korea, would not be a simple spat with neighbors. A single shot fired in anger could trigger a global economic tsunami, engulfing manufacturing centers, trade routes, retail outlets, and political capitals on every continent.
The web of alliances and partnerships in Asia used to be referred to as a “hub and spokes” model, with the United States at the center of a series of bilateral relationships. This reflected not only American preeminence, but also the fact that Washington often had better ties with Asian nations than they had with one another. Even when Seoul and Tokyo were barely talking to each other over historical quarrels, for instance, they were still on good terms with Washington.
Alongside the pivot, the rise of China and growing intra-Asian trade have triggered a whole new set of relationships that are transforming regional security. Instead of a single hub-and-spoke, there are now multiple tie-ups, some involving the United States and many others within the region.
Japan has strengthened ties with India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Australia. Under the shadow of Pyongyang’s nuclear capability, Japan even managed to persuade South Korea to finally complete an intelligence-sharing agreement. There are multiple other partnerships — India and Australia, Australia and Singapore, Vietnam and India, Vietnam and the Philippines, and others — in the form of diplomatic dialogues and joint military exercises.
Carter, in an interview with Foreign Policy aboard Air Force 3, said the proliferation of new intra-Asian tie-ups was “part of the design” of the rebalance from the start. “That’s why ‘network’ and not ‘alliance’ is a more appropriate word. The word is chosen advisedly.”
“We have encouraged relationships that do not involve us,” Carter said. “When you see India and Australia and Japan exercising together, they got that concept from exercises organized by the U.S. in decades past; we created the template.”
But the new president has shown no recognition of the scale of the East Asian challenge. As with the rest of Trump’s campaign, facts didn’t matter to the candidate or his supporters. “You know we have a treaty with Japan where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States,” Trump said at a rally in Iowa, a rural state he went on to win. “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?”
As every attentive electronic shopper knows, Sony no longer makes TVs, because the company had given up trying to compete against cheaper manufacturers in China and South Korea. More to the point, Trump was wrong about the security relationship as well.
For decades, Washington’s message to Tokyo on security had been simple: “Do more.” Japan’s answer was always much the same. They pointed to the country’s pacifist constitution, written for Tokyo after the war by the American occupation, as constraining its ability to fight alongside the United States in the region unless Japan was directly attacked.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s success in getting a constitutional reinterpretation through Parliament in 2015, to give Japan’s military greater leeway, changed the postwar military equation. Now, if there is war involving the United States, Abe’s reforms mean that Japan can fight alongside America, whether it is directly attacked or not.
The irony of this change is palpable. Having thrown off many of the shackles of the postwar era, Tokyo and other allies in Asia, like Singapore, are increasingly insisting that Washington “do more” to fend off China.
Far from doing more, Trump’s America wants to do less, which leaves Japan and other countries out on a dangerous limb. Tokyo cannot turn to China to replace Washington. In all likelihood, Japan would have to go nuclear, an event that would mark a definitive end to the postwar era in East Asia.
Abe rushed to meet Trump in New York soon after the New York mogul’s unexpected election victory. Japanese prime ministers have always tried to be among the first foreign leaders to call on a new American president, but they have traditionally waited until after the inauguration.
Abe had good reason to accelerate the customary schedule. Trump may have been criticizing Japan since the 1980s, but Tokyo has no course but to work with whomever is in power in Washington. “We need America — we cannot handle China on our own,” an Abe advisor told me.
Obama and Abe always had a cool personal relationship. They were at odds ideologically, and split over what Obama regarded as Abe’s revisionist views on the war and Japan’s responsibility for it. The president and the prime minister, however, eventually developed a successful professional relationship, strengthening the bilateral security ties during Abe’s Washington trip in 2015.
Japan’s commitment to work closely with the United States stands in contrast with the recent hurly-burly elsewhere in Asia. The Philippines has flipped, for the moment, from a close U.S. ally into China’s orbit following the 2016 election of an anti-American president, Rodrigo Duterte. The 2014 Thai military coup cooled relations with Washington.
In Australia, long one of America’s closest regional allies, political and business elites are deeply divided over moving closer to the country’s chief economic partner in China at the expense of the U.S. alliance. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is courting China, in part in anger at U.S. investigations implicating him in a money-laundering investigation at a state investment fund. The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in December has left a power vacuum in South Korea.
None of these trends is set in stone. Trump, who has exhibited little concern for human rights, has already invited Duterte to the White House, and he will doubtless be willing to make nice with the Thai junta. Most Australians still favor strong ties with the United States. Ethnic Malays, who dominate their country’s politics, remain deeply suspicious of China. And any South Korean leader has to face the threat from the north.
Carter nonetheless went out of his way in his bilateral meeting with Abe to praise the Japanese prime minister’s “leadership and statesmanship.” After more than four years in power, Abe represents the stability that the United States craves in Asia, and that looks like it is slipping away.
Abe’s 2015 security law and its expansion of the role of Japan’s military have “tangible consequences,” Carter said. “If you anticipate various contingencies with respect to North Korea, it gives additional flexibility to our commanders to respond in different ways that aren’t constrained. That is also true of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.”
“It allows Japan to play a more active and positive role,” he continued. “The world needs more countries that operate on a global basis. It’s good for Japan, because it is a fuller expression of Japan’s actual role in the world.”
However, the most important audience for Carter’s message, and the national security establishment he represents, may be at home in the United States. The pivot, or rebalance, will live or die depending on the willingness of the Trump administration not just to support the policy, but also to sell it. Otherwise America’s allies will find themselves abandoned — and a rising China may look like a better bet than a distant, or even hostile, America.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images