With the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia appears to have been burned to the ground. Its remains must yet cool, but what may ultimately emerge from the ashes could prove reassuring to Asian allies fearful of an American retreat amid China’s rise.
While the new U.S. leader has revealed little about his policy toward the region, there have been numerous hints about the route he will take. Through comments by top advisers and speeches by the new president himself, it appears that Trump may be laying the groundwork for a more muscular, Reagan-esque version of the pivot — one that affirms “peace through strength.”
Such a policy would likely depend heavily on a bolstered military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
This dependence was outlined within hours of Trump’s inauguration Friday in one of the first documents posted to the White House website by the new administration.
“Our military needs every asset at its disposal to defend America,” the document read, adding — in a subtle dig at China — that it would not allow other nations to “surpass our military capability.”
“The Trump Administration,” the document added, “will pursue the highest level of military readiness.”
Trump’s vision was first presented in a major national security speech in September that pledged to focus on “advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world.”
Such a push, he said at the time, would “require rethinking the failed policies of the past.”
“We can make new friends, rebuild old alliances, and bring new allies into the fold,” he added.
In the speech, he also spoke of a military buildup plan that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, though he did not give specifics on strategy or cost estimates.
The plan, which among other things has called for a boost in the navy’s fleet from 276 to 350 ships and submarines, would be particularly relevant to the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s military modernization program and moves in the contested South China Sea have seen it tip the balance of power closer in its favor.
According to Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia, military power will be “seen as the most important tool of U.S. statecraft” by the Trump administration.
“This won’t be a ‘diplomacy, defense and development’ approach but military power as the key means through which the U.S. will advance its international interests.”
But while a larger navy is consistent with the goals of the Obama pivot, regional leadership will not inexorably follow from military might, said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“Deep diplomatic engagement, active participation in ASEAN, APEC, and more, and upholding the rule of law are all necessary to communicate to the region that the U.S. presence is good for Asia,” Rapp-Hooper said. “In short: A new administration must continue to seek to contribute to and uphold the international order — not circumvent or undermine it.”
For Trump, there has been progress on this front since his election as he has undertaken a more conciliatory approach to the region’s allies. He earlier ignited concerns of U.S. retrenchment during his scorched-earth campaign for the White House.
Trump now appears to be shifting tactics on Asia.
From the time of his election to his swearing-in Friday, he has been active on Asia issues. He has met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reassuring him of his commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, taken an unprecedented phone call with Taiwan’s president and lambasted China over the “one-China” policy, its economic practices and its aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
Experts say this shift can be especially seen in those he has chosen to fill Cabinet posts and key advisory roles.
“Trump’s foreign policy and national security selections, though few in number so far, generally do not suggest indifference to alliances or support the isolationist messages in his campaign,” Jeffrey Bader, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, wrote in a report earlier this month.
The new defense chief, retired U.S. Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, is a strong proponent of the alliance system, while former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, voiced support during Senate confirmation hearings for a more robust approach to countering China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
Several prominent officials with backgrounds in Asia are also advising Trump, including chief strategist and senior counselor Stephen Bannon, a onetime naval officer with the Pacific Fleet who is reportedly keenly interested in the region where he served, and Matt Pottinger, a former marine intelligence officer and journalist in China who is fluent in Mandarin. Pottinger is expected to be named National Security Council senior director for Asia.
On trade, Trump has tapped Peter Navarro, a China-bashing economics professor to head the new National Trade Council, and Robert Lighthizer as nominee for U.S. trade representative. In a blow to the economic side of the pivot, both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, which Trump has said he will withdraw the U.S. from.
Navarro and Lighthizer have also accused Beijing of unfair trade practices, with Navarro signaling “a seismic and transformative shift in trade policy” that would emerge under Trump.
This could come in the form of a 45 percent tariff on imports from China, a move that some fear would prompt a full-blown trade war between the two economic behemoths that some analysts say could wreak havoc on the global economy.
Advisers have attempted to tamp down these concerns, arguing that they are using the threat of a tariff to get Beijing to halt its unfair trade practices, and that tariffs won’t cost U.S. jobs.
Still, questions remain over Trump’s willingness to rein in other parts of his campaign rhetoric — most importantly, his criticism that Japan is not shouldering a fair share of the burden of hosting U.S. troops.
These questions were highlighted during his inauguration address Friday, when he said that the U.S. had for decades “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”
“Trump has criticized allies as free-riders and the U.S. for being taken advantage of by its allies and strategic partners for decades, so we can assume that this is a strongly held belief,” said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
But any negotiations for increased burden-sharing with Tokyo will not necessarily be for more cash. Instead, the U.S. could seek something it has long desired: a bolstered Japanese security role in Asia.
U.S. pressure, Cook said, has long been used by successive Japanese governments to push the domestic political envelope on Japan’s regional and global security role.
“Prime Minister Abe may be able to use this new perceived pressure from the U.S. for Japan to bear more burden in the alliance to counteract bureaucratic and public opinion resistance to his own push for Japan to play a more proactive security role in East Asia,” Cook said.
This burden-bearing, he added, could entail Japanese freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, a larger Japanese investment in ballistic missile defense, or a quicker resolution to the base relocation issue in Okinawa.
Overall, Trump’s approach to foreign policy — especially regarding China — appears in many ways to emulate former President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” which sought to gain the upper hand by keeping other leaders guessing about his intentions.
Indeed, Trump himself has even lauded unpredictability as a key tenet of his approach.
“We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said in an April speech. “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference.”
Indeed, Trump’s comments and that of his Cabinet nominees and advisers have indicated a step-change in U.S. willingness to assume higher levels of strategic risk with China.
Tillerson’s remarks during his first Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month that the U.S. should block China’s access to its man-made islets in the South China Sea suggest that the Trump team is attempting “to signal a deliberate discontinuity in the U.S.-China policy from Obama,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“The basic intention seems to be to flip the terms of reference of U.S.-China relations in a way that puts Beijing off-balance, putting the onus on it to guess U.S. intentions,” Graham said.
China experts say this approach has worked, at least for now.
“Trump has indeed left the Chinese confused and divided,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Zhang said that while some Chinese officials believe his acts and words belie his true intention to pursue a new approach to China, others view him as an impulsive person whose terse Twitter comments may not necessarily imply major policy shifts.
“Many thus suggest that China adopt a wait-and-see strategy,” Zhang said. “China is indeed pursuing this approach toward the incoming Trump administration as nobody is absolutely sure of what he wants.”
But there is a limit to Beijing’s patience, Zhang added, especially considering the timing of Trump’s emergence. It comes as President Xi Jinping continues to cultivate an image as a tough defender of China’s “core interests,” which include Taiwan and the South China Sea, as he seeks to consolidate power in the run-up to leadership elections at a key party congress this fall.
“I think if Trump does challenge China on key issues that concern its core interests, Xi would be compelled to push back,” Zhang said. “So for domestic legitimacy, he would be under a lot of pressure to push back against Trump’s ‘provocations.’ This scenario will increase the possibility of clashes between China and the U.S. over key issues.”
This series looks at efforts to assess the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.