Continuing the Strategic Rebalance

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The Trump administration’s early moves in East Asia unsettled America’s allies and friends.

First, President Trump immediately announced the US withdrawal from the TPP. Second, the new Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in his testimony to the US Congress, declared that the Trump Administration would not repeat the Obama administration’s term of “rebalancing” or pivoting to Asia because it implied that the US was turning away from its defense obligations in other parts of the world. This and his tirades against multilateral trade arrangements generated an apprehension in East and Southeast Asia, that Trump will ignore the region.

However, current developments show that the Trump administration could not simply shift focus away from Asia.

Early on, they realized that prudence in the conduct of US foreign policy in East Asia requires taking into account the broad trends of Asia’s economic dynamism, China’s rising power, and its predecessor’s rebalancing strategy in grappling with emerging regional security challenges.

President Trump found it necessary to reinvigorate engagements in the Asia Pacific to fulfill his campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.”

Possessing the most powerful navy and as the leading maritime trading nation, the US has maintained a significant economic, diplomatic, and strategic presence in the region since the end of the Second World War. Reassessing American security interests and engagement in East Asia — including some inherited policies from the Obama administration, key White House officials have realized that the Asia Pacific had become “a key driver of global politics” and “the rebalancing is a means for a sustained and coherent US long-term strategy toward the region.” This requires continuing assertion of America’s leadership role in Asia and projecting its naval power to counter-balance China’s pervasive regional influence.

In early 2017, President Trump and key officials sent a consistent message that US commitment to America’s Asian allies, especially to the defense of South Korea and Japan, is as solid as ever.

In April, President Trump invited the leaders of three ASEAN member states — Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines to the White House to muster support against the North Korean nuclear arms program. Secretary Mattis and Vice-President Mike Pen conveyed two messages to allies and competitors in the region — the US stands firm against North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling and China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea; and that despite President Trump’s rhetoric about America’s First Policy, this administration will not turn away from American security commitments in Asia.

As declared by his predecessor, Secretary Mattis announced that the US remains committed to protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful use of the sea, and the ability of countries to exercise those rights in the strategically important East and South China Seas.

Consequently, in May 2017, the US Navy conducted three separate Freedom of Navigation (FON) patrols near Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea.

The USS Dewey sailed near the Chinese occupied Mischief Reef on 25 May. In July, the USS Stethem conducted a FON operation in the Paracels to challenge the excessive maritime claims by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. This was followed by two US B-1 Lancer bombers from Guam that flew over the South China Sea. These FON sorties in the South China Sea reinforced the Obama administration’s strategic commitment to rules-based order through naval power.

During the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Secretary Mattis reiterated all the themes emphasized by previous administrations (especially the Obama administration) on “the US being a Pacific Power, and the Asia Pacific region being a priority for Washington” and declared that “security is the foundation of prosperity, and the US will continue to strengthen (its) military capabilities in the region.”

The North Korean nuclear ambition and escalating rhetoric has become a top security concern.

US defense officials believe that within a decade, it is possible that North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles will be capable of hitting US territories in the Pacific and the continental USA posing “a clear and present danger” to global peace and stability.

In late October, Secretary Mattis reiterated that the US will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Acting primarily on diplomacy, the Trump administration is not shy about its military options. The US has tried to elicit Chinese support by asking Beijing to tighten security along its border including tighter customs inspections, travel ban, and asset freeze on North Korean entities involved in nuclear and ballistic programs. The US, Japan and South Korea are also working together to apply economic and diplomatic pressure.

The Trump administration’s current foreign policy behavior in East Asia reflects continuity rather than discontinuity with the Obama administration’s rebalancing policy.

This stemmed from an appreciation and understanding that the US must play a leading role in strengthening American alliances, partnerships, and regional institutions that widely share American commitment to a rules-based international order as the foundation of peace and stability in East Asia. This is also based on the acceptance of the stark reality that American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region is being challenged by China.

Two American analysts quipped this point, “Asia remains a high priority region; administrations may change but national interests do not.”


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