President-elect Donald Trump’s comments and actions since winning the U.S. presidential election in November offer new insights into the kind of Asia policy his administration may pursue after taking office in January. After the Barack Obama years, some course corrections on China policy in particular would be welcome. But uncertainty in other areas could compound allies’ anxieties and undercut U.S. economic interests.
On one hand, Trump threatens a break from longstanding U.S. commitments to alliances, free trade, and diplomacy with China. This risks producing strategic instabilities in an Asia riven by great-power rivalries and the insecurities of lesser states. On the other hand, some of the president-elect’s proposed policies may actually put him in sync with Asian powers that take a more nationalistic line on the uses of military power and economic statecraft.
Perhaps the most significant potential shift in U.S. policy concerns China. Trump takes a more hawkish line than Obama does on China’s militarization of the South China Sea, military buildup, and unfair trade practices. Indeed, Trump may be compensating for Obama’s unduly passive response to China’s aggressive behavior in maritime Asia — reflected in China’s brazen seizure on Dec. 15 of a U.S. underwater surveillance drone — by adopting a tougher stance that pushes back against Beijing’s efforts to enforce an Asian Monroe Doctrine.
Trump has also promised to ramp up U.S. defense spending after its relative decline during the Obama years. His advisers have criticized the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” as more talk than action and have pledged to rectify this by substantially increasing the U.S. military presence through an accelerated naval buildup. The combination of standing up to China’s neo-imperialistic behavior and expanding America’s ability to project power could reassure Asian allies who lately have questioned U.S. staying power in their region.
America’s president-elect has also put China’s leaders off-balance by pledging to strengthen U.S. support for Taiwan. His phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen was the first between U.S. and Taiwanese leaders in over three decades. Trump has been unconcerned with upholding codified understandings of how the U.S. government may and may not engage with Taiwan so as to respect Chinese sensitivities. But as the president-elect quite reasonably argued, why should Washington tiptoe around Beijing’s concerns over Taiwan when China fails to respect those of the U.S. on freedom of navigation and unfair trade practices?
Trump’s appreciation of the value of the U.S.-Japan alliance has also increased since he questioned its utility on the campaign trail and suggested Tokyo might be better off acquiring nuclear weapons to defend itself. Central to this reappraisal was his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 17, Trump’s first with a world leader. Abe left the meeting reassured that the president-elect would continue to support the alliance after explaining Japan’s role as a model host for U.S. forces stationed on its territory and its efforts at self-strengthening through military and economic reform.
That is the positive side of the ledger. Of greater concern is Trump’s early repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a centerpiece of U.S. economic leadership in the emerging hub of the global economy. Making America great again, as he has promised, will require enhanced trade and investment access to the markets of the Pacific Rim. His administration could rebrand the TPP, pivot directly to negotiating a bilateral U.S.-Japan trade agreement, or split the deal up into country-specific and sectoral agreements and negotiate these individually.
Either way, Trump’s wish to deny China dominion in Asia and to increase well-paid jobs in America will require him to deploy U.S. economic influence to fill the vacuum left by the TPP’s collapse. America cannot “win again” on trade by ceding the field to competitors that discriminate against U.S. goods and services.
Several of Trump’s proposed changes to U.S. Asia strategy dovetail with Asian concerns, potentially creating new oppertunities for cooperation. First is his plan to engage Russia, overlooking its revanchism in Europe and its risky meddling in American elections.
Trump will not be the first American president who tries to “reset” relations with Moscow by giving it a pass on its predatory misbehavior against American allies. However, any dividends to closer ties may come not in Europe or the Middle East, where Russia’s air force continues its onslaught against Syrian civilians, but in Asia.
The leaders of China, India, and Japan all either enjoy or are seeking closer ties to Moscow. For both Japan and India, their interest in Russian engagement stems from a desire to shape a favorable balance of power in Asia that is not controlled by China. For its part, Beijing has found it useful to align with Russia in an anti-American axis that safeguards the rule of authoritarian strongmen against internal dissent.
A new U.S.-Russia entente could align America with Japan and India in attempting to pry Putin away from his quasi-alliance with Beijing. None of these countries have an interest in Chinese or Russian domination of the Eurasian heartland. However, it may require new leadership in Moscow to understand that the price of closer ties to Washington and its Asian partners will be a retreat from efforts to build a new Russian empire in eastern Europe.
Trump is also more in sync with Asian counterparts in his determination to use state power to pursue geo-economic gain. His threats to impose punitive tariffs on China, and to create leverage for trade negotiations with Beijing by playing the Taiwan card, more closely resembles China’s own approach of promoting national champions, discriminating against foreign companies and investors, employing state-owned corporations as tools of influence to secure Chinese national interests abroad, and explicitly tying economic to diplomatic cooperation on issues like the Dalai Lama and human rights.
A U.S. trade policy approach tinged by mercantilism would in some ways resemble Japan in the 1980s, when the all-powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry worked intimately with Japanese corporations to make them agents of Japanese statecraft abroad. It would also mirror in some respects Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to use state power to drive growth less through free-market reforms than through economic diplomacy and official exhortation, including the “Make in India” campaign.
Finally, Trump’s nationalism is more in tune with the nationalistic surge evident in Abe’s Japan, Xi Jinping’s China, Modi’s India, Putin’s Russia, and the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte. This could lead to greater cooperation, as the leaders of these countries do deals directly with each other over the heads of more cautious bureaucracies.
But it could also lead to conflict, as nations define their interests in more zero-sum terms, and as the prestige of strong leaders is conflated with diplomatic outcomes in ways that lead to angry standoffs over pride and principle. This is a particular risk not only with Asia’s major powers but with North Korea, whose reckless young leader is likely to test Trump early in his tenure with another ballistic missile or nuclear weapons test.
To the extent that Asia’s nationalistic turn preceded America’s, it may be that Trump can wield the force of American exceptionalism more effectively than could someone like Obama who did not believe in it, was too willing to compromise and concede to foreign rivals, and relied on policies of “strategic patience” that eroded rather than reinforced peace in Northeast Asia.
In a more rivalrous Asia, Trump’s nationalism and determination to restore American strength through economic and military growth could make the U.S. more competitive. However, this is likely to be true only if his administration pursues effective policies to sustain American diplomatic, economic, and military leadership in Asia — including by investing in the alliance relationships that magnify American power and sustain the stability that underwrites pan-Pacific prosperity.
A version of this essay appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
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