Donald Trump’s executive order ending America’s commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has left U.S. allies like Japan and Australia aghast at the waste of time and effort on what was once a signature – and effective – policy in the region. His “America First” refrain in his inauguration speech, with all its suggestions of a widespread retrenchment of U.S resources from the Pacific, was equally disturbing.
But they should be at least as alarmed by the contrary indications that Trump is intent on a newly assertive foreign policy in Asia, one more reliant on hard power. That latter vision, especially in combination with the former, is no less dangerous for America’s friends in the region.
Consider the testimony offered by Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 11, as he warned of a more confrontational South China Sea policy: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” There are only so many ways the Trump team can go about sending such signals given its vow to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which America’s allies had been hoping the United States would complete. By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions. That would probably mean an attempted military blockade against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea.
But that raises a host of other questions: Is the Trump administration prepared to risk major conflict with China? What costs would they be willing to suffer in a clash far from American shores in Beijing’s backyard? And would America’s allies welcome such a clash?
Tillerson’s provocative remarks may be a rhetorical gesture, another tenuous red line, or they may signal the beginnings of a far more assertive American policy of containment aimed at curbing China’s control of the South China Sea. Either interpretation invites peril.
Or consider the “peace through strength” vision offered by Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, two of Trump’s Asia advisers, on Foreign Policy. They say the president will strengthen U.S. military might in the Pacific by expanding its presence of navy ships. The Asia hawks on Team Trump seem to think that a show of force is necessary to persuade Beijing to relent in its quest for regional domination.
However, rather than stabilizing the region, such a strategy will increase the likelihood of a great power conflict between the United States and China. China is likely to believe the United States is trying to contain its rise, a position already popular among the leadership in Beijing. Bereft of trade incentives and heavy on military posturing, a Trump strategy of peace through strength will only empower Chinese hard-liners and increase the chances of a superpower conflict.
Partners and allies in Asia look to Washington not just for security but for trade and investment. The two components complement each other as twin pillars of a comprehensive regional strategy. For decades, Washington has pursued a multifaceted approach encompassing both hard and soft power, advancing U.S. interests by diplomacy and the attractiveness of American investment, values, and culture.
Hard and soft power are mutually reinforcing. American military strength has protected open sea lanes, guaranteeing freedom of commerce and navigation, while trade ties have justified U.S. military presence, which Asian countries view as necessary for stability and prosperity.
Though the Obama administration downplayed the military component of its “pivot to Asia,” its signature foreign policy aiming to shift attention and resources to the region, it failed to convince Beijing it was anything but a containment strategy. Beyond new defense deals, the administration sought to invest the United States in the incredible growth opportunities of “the Asian century.” But the failure to pass TPP represents the collapse of the rebalance’s economic pillar.
Trump risks exacerbating this dangerous imbalance. If his advisors are unable to craft a more rounded Asia strategy, including new trade initiatives, the administration would reinforce Beijing’s suspicions of U.S. intentions. It also would put our Asian partners in an uncomfortable position: Smaller countries don’t want to be forced to choose between two competing superpowers. Nor is it clear whom they would select in such a circumstance.
At times the inconsistency of various U.S. administrations has frustrated Asian partners. Moreover, each change in administration brings with it new personnel, many of whom are not known to local counterparts and spend years building trust and diplomatic capital. Beijing, on the other hand, presents a more or less consistent face due to glacial political change under a one-party system.
It’s far easier for America to pursue its interests in the region, and support its allies, when the military and economic components of its strategy go in tandem. Piggybacking on free-trade agreements (FTAs), the Obama administration was able to ink an array of deals on defense cooperation with Asian countries. For example, since Washington and Singapore signed an FTA in 2004, bilateral trade grew by 50 percent in a decade. The two sides signed a strategic partnership in 2012 and further elevated security ties by signing an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2015.
Similarly, the Korea-U.S. FTA goes hand in hand with a deep security alliance. Not only the most expansive free-trade agreement yet envisioned, the TPP also represented an on-ramp to a U.S.-Japan FTA, connecting the world’s largest and third-largest economies and further strengthening the two countries’ strong treaty alliance.
Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the TPP marks a huge letdown for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who invested a huge amount of political capital betting on the deal’s success. It is also a disappointment for American partners such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, which view the United States as a counterweight to China’s heft.
American credibility rests on its ability to follow through on economic and security commitments. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “If at the end of it all you let [Abe] down, which next Japanese prime minister is going to count on you – not just on trade but on security?” Lee also noted the implicit connection between American trade and security commitments: “If you are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?”
Trump so far hasn’t offered any new trade initiatives, but his team would do well to come up with some ideas. Without economic statecraft, the United States is a less attractive competitor for Asian countries, which will join alternative trade deals like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which does not include the United States.
All too pleased, China is reaping large gains as the United States pulls back. Though not diametrically opposed to the TPP (both deals include Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam), the RCEP is nearing completion with some nudging from Beijing.
Although America’s friends in Asia might not be as enthusiastic about the comparatively modest RCEP, they support the developing trade architecture out of pragmatism. Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, warned of this outcome in 2013 when he told a journalist from the Atlantic, “Without an FTA [with the United States], Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the ASEAN countries will be integrated into China’s economy – an outcome to be avoided.”
Yet Trump’s advisors clearly don’t see the consequences of being left out of regional trade networks, believing instead that American military can check China’s growing power. For instance, Gray and Navarro propose a comprehensive arms deal with Taiwan, seeking to strengthen the U.S. security commitment in light of Beijing’s edge. Analysts in Taiwan warn that Trump’s presidency could escalate tensions between Beijing and Taipei, which is already making other countries nervous.
Indeed, Trump’s demonstrated willingness to toss out the rulebook on the one-China policy, with his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, has already ratcheted up tensions with Beijing to a level not seen since 1996, when President Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait. The passage of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait at the end of December was largely interpreted as a stern indictment directed at Taipei and the incoming Trump administration. The carrier group then transited past Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan, into the South China Sea. A simultaneous op-ed appearing in China’s state-affiliate mouthpiece, the Global Times, warned, “If the fleet is able to enter areas where the US has core interests, the situation when the US unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change.”
From Beijing’s perspective, a Trump presidency poses grave uncertainties. Military strategists in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) view Taiwan as a paramount security threat to internal stability, so using the island state as a bargaining chip only empowers hard-liners in the Communist Party and PLA who advocate a more assertive military strategy.
Moving more U.S. naval assets into the Pacific will add to Beijing’s perceptions of U.S. containment while increasing the odds that a minor accident or hostile encounter could trigger armed conflict. One could imagine China deploying underwater submarine detection defenses in the South or East China Sea to monitor U.S. Navy movements. If Washington were to seek to destroy these assets to preempt Chinese primacy or look to extend American military superiority in the region, Beijing would feel compelled to retaliate. Trump’s team might then be tempted to think a shocking use of force could deter Beijing from escalating conflict. It’s not clear at what point Trump would decide the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits of winning such a clash.
Instead of seeking to further militarize the Pacific, Trump and his national security team should think hard about how to buttress security commitments in Asia through trade and enhanced bilateral cooperation. U.S. investment and alliances are the source of our strength in Asia and serve to justify continuing U.S. military presence in the region. But “peace through strength” is an illusion and an incomplete strategy. By relying only on sticks without any carrots in its confrontation with China, the Trump team is only inviting disaster.