Making America Great Again: What to expect from the Trump administration’s foreign policy on Asia

Prof. Renato de Castro, Stratbase ADRi Trustee 

Throughout his second term, then US President Barack Obama made certain that the Asia-Pacific region served as the focal point of US strategic and diplomatic attention, as he built up American forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific, strengthened bilateral alliances, forged new security partnerships with a number of East Asian states, and boosted US participation in regional organizations. Although unsuccessful, he worked for the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to ensure the US’ economic leadership in East Asia.

The Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia was congruent with the US’ long-standing agenda in the region: to prevent the rise of a power that could threaten American political, economic, and security interests. Its main short-term goal was to constrain China from enforcing its claim in the South China Sea through the maritime capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and from building artificial islands in the disputed waters.

With the election of Donald Trump, some conclude that the rebalance is doomed. This view often stems from President Trump’s opposition to the TPP and campaign pronouncements that the alliance system is unfair to the US. This view, however, ignores the principle behind the rebalancing strategy: that on the basis of geography, interests, and values, the US is a Pacific power that needs to play an important role in shaping the future of this region.

As an American analyst, Ralph Cossa, remarked: “America’s focus on Asia is a national security priority has been a bipartisan constant since the end of the Cold War and the centrality of the US alliance system in Asia – as in Europe (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) – has been a bipartisan constant since 1950s.”

An essay written by two Trump foreign policy advisers, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, revealed that the rebalancing strategy will continue. In the essay, they make the following assertions about the Obama-era rebalance:

  1. The US had lost sight of Asia’s strategic importance during 10 years of Middle East Wars;
  2. The Obama administration was right to signal reassurance to America’s allies and partners. However, this pivot failed to capture the reality that the US, particularly in the military sphere, had remained deeply committed to the region;
  3. There is a general bipartisan support on the strategic rebalancing given that China’s military modernization has generated results and Beijing has been flexing its muscles;
  4. The US under Trump will conduct a thorough appraisal of US national interests and will work with any country that shares American goals of stability, prosperity, and security;
  5. The Trump administration will pursue a policy of peace through strength by the massive buildup of the US Navy Fleet from 274 to 350 ships; and
  6. The US will guarantee the liberal order in Asia but will ask Japan and South Korea to contribute their fair share to the cost of sustaining US presence in their countries.

This vision of “Peace Through Strength” integrates some of the Obama administration’s assumptions, such as China’s assertiveness, the importance of maintaining the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and the role of the US in buttressing the liberal order in Asia.

However, it rejects the TPP and imposes greater financial responsibility allies hosting US forces.

The Trump advisers faulted Obama’s rebalance for “talking loudly but carrying a small stick, one that had led to more, not less, aggression and instability in the region.” Interestingly, while supporting a buildup of naval power, the essay is silent on the need for American participation in East Asian multilateral institutions. Instead, it advocates a rebalancing based on sheer naval power and unmitigated unilateralism.

This new thrust will shift US policy to constrainment based on a clear-cut deterrence strategy. A Navy buildup would convey that the US is prepared to confront a peer competitor (or competitors). The result would be an arms race to achieve preponderance over China and to show American resolve to constrain China. This will put China in a classic security dilemma.

Recently, the Chinese have been rattled by Trump’s phone call with the president of Taiwan, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson’s statements implying a blockade of Chinese artificial islands in the South China Seas, and by Trump’s inaugural speech that blamed trade practices for failing to put “America first.” China expects Trump to bring American – owned factories in its territory back to the US and to use ties with Taipei as a “bargaining chip” to put trade pressure on Beijing. The Chinese state-run national tabloid, the Global Times, warned that Trump’s inaugural speech indicated that the US and China would eventually enter a global trade war.

It is too early to say whether “Peace through Strength” will be the basic tenet of the new Asia policy. Yet, any new Asia policy under the Trump administration would likely still be guided by America’s historic goals: promoting free trade and preventing the ambition of a regional power that could threaten US interests in the region.

However, as Arizona State University professor Sheldon Simon warns, “…Mr. Trump speaks of his ability to make deals. This suggests that his approach to international politics will be transactional rather than values-based […] If this modus operandi is accurate, the world will experience a very different American profile than the one that prevailed over the past eight years.”

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