November 16, 2016
After a grueling election season, on November 8, Americans elected their 45th president of the United States in a stunning victory for Donald Trump. As in much of the world, policymakers in Asia have been transfixed by the twists and turns of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, raising questions over where U.S. foreign policy toward Asia will stand under new leadership.
With 60 percent of the world’s population and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and thorniest security challenges, Asia’s rising strategic importance cannot be overstated. The 2016 campaign revealed mounting skepticism on how the U.S. will to continue its role in global leadership, and concern over what the China strategy would be in a new administration.
Now President-elect Donald Trump will find a complex set of issues to address in the dynamic and divergent region, including security, trade, pressing inter-Asian tensions, expectations of Asian leaders and the broader public about America’s role, as well as rising powers eager to set their own agendas.
Yesterday, The Asia Foundation released “Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance“—a set of strategic recommendations for the incoming president on foreign policy toward Asia, including concise top 10 crucial actions. The Asia Foundation’s quadrennial project convenes a series of closed-door, high-level working groups of Asian and American thought leaders across the Asia Pacific leading up to the election.
In contrast to the majority of Asia policy studies in the United States which limit their inquiry to American views, this project emphasizes a diverse set of Asian perspectives. This year’s Asian participants comprise both established foreign policy luminaries and a younger generation of rising stars from civil society and policy institutes. In addition to the chapters written by the project’s three Asia chairs, three emerging Asian leaders who participated in the workshops contributed a forward-looking snapshot entitled “The Future of Asia,” in which they envision Asia’s future and the optimal role of the United States in it. A response from two prominent American foreign policy specialists examines the political appetite within the U.S. for such recommendations.
Here are the top 10 recommendations for the new president:
- Maintain a robust, sustained, and consistent American presence in the Asia-Pacific. A precipitous reduction of engagement in Asia would be detrimental to the interests of most Asian countries as well as the United States. Any diminution of U.S. credibility will push the Asian states toward self-help in the security realm and trigger massive destabilization of the regional order.
2. Support Asian regional architecture and institutions. While bilateral relations are important, multilateral mechanisms and diplomacy that promote greater cohesion among Asian countries are essential to America’s continued engagement in the region. America should support the mandate of the China-led AIIB, while partnering with Japan and India in infrastructure development in Asia.
3. President-elect Trump should re-examine his position on the campaign trail and ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), finding a way to move forward productively on this comprehensive trade agreement, which most Asians see as a mutually beneficial pillar of America’s role in the region.
4. President-elect Trump should rethink U.S. strategy on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are an evermore imminent threat. In a matter of just a few years, the DPRK will have the ability to attack U.S. territory with a nuclear-armed ICBM. U.S. “strategic patience” has failed. After toughening international sanctions, the United States must eventually begin talks with North Korea to find a permanent solution on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, the U.S. government must be prepared for sudden political instability in the DPRK, and continue consultations with key stakeholders, including South Korea and China.
5. President-elect Trump should pursue a balanced approach toward China. As China continues to rise as an economic, political, and military power, the 45th president must resist the temptation of polarizing rhetoric or policies. Asian nations value America’s economic and security presence, but they do not want to be forced to choose between the world’s two largest powers. A strategic mix of engagement and hedging is a better U.S. policy toward China than either confrontation or appeasement.
6. The new president should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although the United States follows UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law, the failure of Congress to ratify UNCLOS weakens the U.S. position on the South China Sea and on international law more broadly. The U.S. should continue its freedom-of-navigation operations and encourage other countries such as Japan and Australia to undertake their own FONOPS to make such activity more multilateral.
7. President-elect Trump should work with India to address South Asian security. As it draws India into a larger role in Asian security, Washington should work with Delhi to develop a coordinated approach to countering terrorism, nudge Pakistan toward political moderation, and promote regional economic integration in the South Asian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region.
8. President-elect Trump should not abandon Afghanistan. It would be unwise for the U.S. to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. Poor governance is often the cradle of terrorism and instability, and to counter such instability, the U.S. must continue to promote the rule of law, build civil society, and support economic and development measures that increase Afghanistan’s national capacity to effectively govern and to provide for its own security.
9. The Trump administration should continue to play a leading role in nontraditional security. Broadly speaking, Asian nations have been slower than the United States to address security challenges such as climate change, disaster relief, terrorism, and food security. Most Asian countries welcome American expertise in humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and mitigating the effects of climate change, and they want the United States to continue to lead and to facilitate cooperation in these nontraditional security areas.
10. Finally, President-elect Trump needs to continue to project American “soft power.” No country in the world can match the resonance of American “soft power” in Asia. The United States can strengthen liberal and modernizing forces in Asia by exercising its unique influence in partnership with local initiatives rather than imposing an agenda on the region and interfering in the internal affairs of states. Political modernization owned by Asians themselves will enhance America’s political standing and advance her foreign-policy objectives over the long term. The U.S. should continue to cultivate educational and cultural ties with Asia, support civil society organizations and technological innovation, and serve as a role model for good governance by building capacity and sharing best practices.
It’s clear from our many long discussions across the region that Asia wants the U.S. to exercise global leadership in this complex era, and not succumb to the temptation of isolationist sentiments. If the U.S., rich with experience in global leadership, retreats in this situation, there will be a leadership vacuum. This will not only damage the long-term interests of the United States, but will create a chaotic situation in Asia and throughout the world. For this reason, Asia and Asians expect continued leadership from the United States. It must not falter.
John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.