Trump in Asia: The Year in Review

January 4, 2018 7:00 AM

Donald Trump campaigned on a platform that included fundamental changes in the US posture toward Asia. He cast doubt on the utility of the alliances with Japan and South Korea and questioned the One China policy, and thus the longstanding policy of "strategic ambiguity" over Taiwan. He mused aloud that Japan and Korea might acquire nuclear weapons. He threatened a tougher posture toward the North Korean nuclear dilemma, including hints of a military option. On the economic front, he promised wide-ranging enforcement actions against China, including over alleged exchange rate manipulation, an exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, and renegotiation of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

A year on from his inauguration, President Trump has made good on some of these promises while modifying others or walking them back altogether. But those reversals did not necessarily imply a return to the status quo ante. How do we think about US Asia policy one year on?

In late October, former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Myung Hwan Yu and I convened a conference at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego that gathered together papers on the theme of "Trump in Asia."  (The conference received generous support from the Asia Research Fund and the Pacific Century Institute). The papers have now been published at Global Asia, which has rapidly become one of the best sources for current analysis of the region.  The papers not only dissect the evolution of Trump's approach to the region, but gauge how China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan have adapted. Following is a brief overview of the issue for those seeking an overview of the president's first year.

Bruce Jentleson (Duke University) sets the stage by underlining three distinctive features of the president's overall foreign policy approach—including his rebalance toward the Middle East and the dilemmas associated with his "America First" agenda. Jentleson also tackles the fundamental question of Trump's decision-making style: the risks posed by inadequate deliberation and the possible effects on crisis.

Patrick Cronin (Center for a New American Security) and Robert Thomas (Vice Admiral [ret.] and UCSD) consider alliance relationships through political and military lenses, respectively, and claim to find greater continuity than is often thought. Cronin argues that the Trump administration will not focus on human rights to the same extent as his predecessors, but he is more sanguine about the administration's economic agenda. The broad outlines of the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy comport with a long-standing Republican preference for an offshore balancing strategy, rooted in a strong naval presence, the alliance relationships, and the expansion of ties with ASEAN and India.

Thomas surveys the alliances at the military level, providing a ranking of the level of interoperability and where work remains to be done. But he does not foresee fundamental change in how the United States and allied militaries are likely to operate; as institutions, the alliances are likely to persist and provide an anchor of US relations with the region.

Miles Kahler (American University), by contrast, sees a much more fundamental departure in the scrapping of the TPP. He outlines the risks associated with abandoning the economic component of the Asia pivot under the administration of President Barack Obama. In the absence of such engagement, Chinese leverage increases and America's is diminished.

The challenges of China's rise have been sharpened recently by internal developments, including President Xi Jinping using his concentrated power to advance a more forward foreign policy. Titling her essay "Giving Away Advantage," Susan Shirk (UCSD) outlines the risks in Trump's transactional approach. She argues it weakens the ability of the United States to align support around common principles and could leave the US position in Asia dramatically weakened. Shirk argues for a focus on hard problems such as North Korea that could nonetheless yield significant returns.

With all the uncertainties Trump has introduced, we might expect a region on edge. But a surprising finding of the essays by Asian contributors is how all four major Northeast Asian countries have adjusted to the Trump, the US alliance partners. Amid North Korea's challenges, it is not surprising that the administration was constrained to reassure Japan and South Korea. Sugio Takahashi (Institute for National Defense Studies, Tokyo) notes that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was particularly agile in forging a personal relationship with Trump, and received some assurances in return. Nonetheless, Takahashi worries about US commitment to the South China Sea and the economic agenda remains muddy.

The larger surprise was in Seoul. South Korea was preoccupied with its own political turmoil, culminating in a presidential election in May that brought a left-leaning liberal government back to office after nine years. Seong-ho Sheen (Seoul National University) looks at how President Moon Jae-in managed to establish a reasonable working relationship with Trump after initial expectations that he could play a more independent role vis-à-vis the North. The two share common threat perceptions over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Moon faces a difficult balancing act, however, both with respect to his domestic constituency and the gravitational pull of China.

More disturbing from an American perspective is the ease with which China and Russia seem to have absorbed—and discounted—the Trump effect. Wu Xinbo's (Fudan University) contribution—aptly titled "Constructive Engagement: China's Handling of Trump," exudes a deep confidence in how well—and easily—Xi has been able to structure the bilateral relationship to China's liking. A looming question for the new year, however, is whether Trump's economic agenda will sour the bilateral agenda.

Liudmila Zakharova (Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences) notes the disappointment in Moscow that political cross-pressures in the United States blocked a reset in bilateral relations. Yet she outlines succinctly how Russian strategy in the region is unlikely to be affected by Trump one way or another: Core interests will dictate a continuation of a "Look East" policy, which includes not only relations with China, Japan, and the two Koreas but an enduring interest in Central Asia as well.

Finally, I take a look at the North Korean conundrum, which hangs heavily over the other relationships in the region. Trump promised that strategic patience was dead. But he quickly learned the constraints that operated in compelling North Korea, and had to elicit some cooperation from China. Many have now asked whether the risks on the peninsula emanate as much from possible US miscalculations as from Kim Jong-un. Nonetheless, bluster notwithstanding, the current strategy of "maximum pressure and engagement"—which looks quite similar to "strategic patience"—is likely to continue.

All of the articles raise a more fundamental question: To what extent should the Trump phenomenon be viewed as an aberration, likely to be followed by a return to the bipartisan consensus that has long ruled US Asia policy? Some American contributions are more confident than others, but the sense of anxiety is palpable: that either by design or inadvertently, the Trump administration might fundamentally, and irreversibly, cede power to a rising and more forward-looking China. If there is optimism, it arises as much from expectations about how China's neighbors will respond than from confidence in the ability of the Trump administration to combine the contradictory elements of his Asia strategy. These include the call for wide-ranging Indo-Pacific cooperation—a classic offshore balancing strategy—but coupled now with a wider approach to foreign policy that seems unilateral, disengaged, erratic, and even solipsistic.

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