“Everything is under negotiation, including One China.” Those words, said by president-elect Donald Trump in January as he questioned U.S. policy on Taiwan, could mark the death knell of the Obama Administration’s Asia pivot. More importantly, Trump’s words could signal the unraveling of peace and prosperity in Asia, if Trump is willing to deal away U.S. security commitments in exchange for short-term economic benefits from China.
That’s why there is a lot at stake when President Trump welcomes China’s President Xi Jinping to the United States on April 6. Following the visit, there will be a lot of questions. For example, how will Trump get better economic deals from China, as he promised? Does he have a plan to pressure China on North Korea or its aggressive actions in the South China Sea?
These are important issues that require thoughtful strategies. But until Trump figures out his Asia policy, he won’t be able to craft an effective China policy. And that’s where the danger lies. If Trump and his team don’t quickly figure out an overall Asia policy, the self-professed dealmaker may get suckered into deals with China marked by temporary and superficial economic gains in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. power and credibility in Asia that would, in turn, cede regional influence to China. Not only would this hurt American interests, but it could also jeopardize Asia’s future.
What was the so-called Pivot all about?
President Barack Obama’s administration recognized that getting China policy right requires getting Asia policy right, and from that understanding, the Asia pivot was born. The pivot – or “rebalance” – was intended to begin a long-term, fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy to enhance America’s position in the Asia-Pacific. The reasons were simple: Asia’s economic growth is increasingly vital to economic growth in America; and the rise of China is shifting the economic, political, and security dynamics of the region and impacting U.S. interests.
In practice, the rebalance was a hedging strategy. The Obama administration attempted to create real opportunities for partnership with China on issues like climate change and Iran, while simultaneously building up the regional capabilities and relationships that would be required to push back against China if it were to continue to threaten U.S. interests.
Over the last eight years, the United States looked for every opportunity to bolster its position in Asia: negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the world’s largest regional trade deal; joining a leader-level multilateral organization called the East Asia Summit (EAS) and attending annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which serve as Asia’s key vehicles to shape rules and norms. There were also new troop rotations in the Philippines and Australia; and constant, high-level engagement with China.
From my vantage point, as a former deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, I believe that the pivot was successful. What’s the proof? Public opinion of the United States in Asia skyrocketed. The world’s largest regional free trade deal – comprised of roughly 40 percent of global GDP – was negotiated and signed. Our military capabilities and those of our allies were strengthened, including what two former Defense Department officials called “the most significant peacetime enhancements to America’s Pacific posture since the end of World War II.”
No matter how one grades the pivot, its work was never intended to be completed in just eight years. It was always a torch that needed to be picked up by Obama’s successors. But carrying that torch forward is more difficult today because enhanced U.S. engagement over the last eight years has significantly raised regional expectations.
A changing environment
Today, countries expect the United States to be present at annual ASEAN meetings – which are the main venues for the region to pressure China over its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea – and to back them up when they stand up to China there. They expect a robust U.S. military presence, including regular exercises, freedom of navigation operations and a continual strengthening of force posture. And, until recently, they believed that the United States wanted to invest in new trade frameworks in the region.
Regional dynamics are also exacerbating obstacles to U.S. policy. Domestic politics in allied countries have made it more difficult to advance U.S. interests. A political scandal in South Korea brought down a strong U.S. ally in President Park Guen-hye. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has already created a breach in relations with the US, both by openly criticizing America and through his violent campaign against drugs that has already killed more than 8,000 people. The US-Thailand alliance also remains muddled, as it has since a 2014 coup when the military took over and left General Prayut Chan-ocha in charge.
The threats themselves are growing too. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs continue to advance and U.S. defenses are racing to catch up. China’s island building in the South China Sea is further positioning China to challenge freedom of the seas in that critical waterway, and ratcheting up tensions between China and its neighbors.
As evidenced by these continuing challenges, the pivot was far from perfect. The Obama administration could have been tougher with China at times to deter its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Obama could have started pushing TPP earlier to improve its chances at home before the presidential campaign season began. And the administration had little success in getting North Korea to roll back its nuclear and missile programs.
Now, the big question for the current administration is not whether it immediately solves all of these discrete problems, but rather how it plans to strengthen the ability of America to safeguard its long-term regional goals. Challenges like North Korea, the South China Sea, and trade problems can only be tackled if the United States is deeply involved in regional affairs and working closely with partners. And I fear that the Trump administration does not plan the same level of engagement, and that it does not intend to pursue a similar long-term strategy.
Off to a bad start
Trump’s Asia policy began with a series of self-inflicted wounds.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump consistently derided longstanding U.S. allies — including Japan — causing concern in Asia that has only been heightened now that he is president. During the transition period, Trump decided to pick a fight with China over Taiwan by questioning the “One China” policy, the foundation of stability in US.-China relations. Trump yelled at the Australian Prime Minister – a close U.S. ally – during their first phone conversation. And in his first week in office, Trump fulfilled his campaign promise and withdrew the United States from the TPP free trade deal. The ramifications of this in Asia are hard to overstate. It’s a major blow to U.S. credibility after U.S. officials negotiated the TPP for a decade. It also exacerbates the feeling that countries have no alternative to China’s economic dominance.
But the Trump administration has also shown an ability to send the right signals. Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for an early summit. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis visited Japan and South Korea, leaving those allies feeling reassured, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made an early trip d to Japan, Korea, and China, and met with the ambassadors from the ten countries of ASEAN before leaving for Asia. Vice President Mike Pence is reportedly planning a big swing through the region in April.
These trips demonstrate that Trump’s team understands how important the region is and that they intend to personally manage relationships there. This is to be commended. But the concern is not that the Trump administration doesn’t think Asia is important; it’s that they — and especially the president himself — may not know what they’re doing there or what their goals are, particularly with China.
After starting out with an overly aggressive tone towards China, the Trump administration’s China policy pendulum appears to be swinging the other way in a hurry, sapping U.S. China policy of leverage and credibility in the process. In addition to withdrawing from TPP – a massive gift to China – Trump has already reversed his early position on the One China policy “at the request of President Xi,” as the White House put it, which tells Xi that Trump can easily have his mind changed and that what he says — or tweets — should not always be taken seriously, a confusing and dangerous way to run policy.
Tillerson’s trip to Asia – where he largely parroted Chinese talking points and made clear his disdain for public diplomacy and press access – may have also done more harm than good. In a region where talking points are parsed and studied carefully, Tillerson sent two messages, which may not be mutually exclusive: The Trump administration will accommodate Beijing, and/or the new secretary of state doesn’t understand the significance of echoing China’s talking points, and how that will be read by Beijing as agreement on key regional issues.
If Trump has not settled on his policy approaches to Asia, China, or trade – which appears to be the case – this summit meeting is premature, and potentially dangerous.
For Xi, a summit meeting in Washington and at Trump’s getaway at Mar-a-Lago will make for great propaganda as China trumpets strong Sino-American cooperation. After the meeting, it’s likely that China will do what it often does: quietly send its diplomats around the region to spread the message that the US is cutting deals with China at the expense of America’s regional partners. The problem with Trump, is this claim becomes easier to believe.
It’s a lot less clear what Trump will come away with from Xi. Trump’s quick reversal on the One China policy is a foreboding sign of things to come. If China understands who it’s dealing with, Xi will offer Trump financial investments in the United States and other economic deals that Trump can tout at home but which cost China little (this may have already started – see reports that Chinese insurance giant Anbang Insurance Group tried to invest in real estate owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, though the talks ended after public pressure).
It’s risky to negotiate with China if you don’t know what you’re after. China frequently urges the United States to reduce its support for allies in Asia, such as its recent proposal for the US and South Korea to freeze military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear and missile programs. China also regularly criticizes U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and surveillance flights along China’s coast. All of these U.S. policies are not only important for regional security, but for upholding international law.
If the new administration is so focused on a need for perceived economic concessions from China – and doesn’t know how to persuasively work with China on other issues – it will become susceptible to imbalanced deals from China. It could make trades that cede ground on key U.S. security policies that in the long run, could undermine regional stability and international law. If this seems far-fetched, do not forget that Trump’s longest held and most consistent opinion on Asia policy appears to be that U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea are supposedly ripping off the United States, perhaps making these security policies a more attractive set of bargaining chips for Trump.
Pivoting no more?
The good news: It is still very early in the Trump administration. We have yet to see who Trump is going to tap to fill high-level positions in the State Department or the Pentagon. And he could bring in much-needed expertise in the rooms where policy is being discussed in the White House.
But right now there are no Asia experts or officials with significant Asia experience, other than the National Security Council Senior Director Matthew Pottinger (who last worked in Asia as a reporter in China in 2005), at the highest levels of the national security agencies or the White House. Top Trump advisor Steve Bannon – who runs his own foreign policy operation in the White House – said last year that “we’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years… there’s no doubt about that.”
With little expertise at the top and no apparent strategies in place, the best we may be able to hope for is that aspects of the “pivot” policy continue on autopilot: the nitty gritty work of enhancing the military alliances and strengthening U.S. force posture in Asia; making sure high-level officials continue to attend ASEAN meetings; and a balanced relationship with China to advance cooperation on issues like cyber-security, global health and Afghanistan while pushing back on areas like maritime assertiveness, North Korea, and trade.
In the meantime, the biggest stumbling block to continuing to enhance America’s position in Asia sits in the chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. When Tillerson admitted that he was not aware that the president was going to tweet about North Korea while Tillerson himself was in Asia, one thing became abundantly clear: No one knows what the policy is except for the president, and he can be fickle, to say the least.
This raises one other possibility, which in some ways is the exact opposite of what I have outlined: If Trump can’t get what he wants economically from China and gets frustrated, he could move in the other direction and pursue an overly aggressive and destabilizing policy towards China. Trump’s past comments on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and trade back this up. And most of all, his irascibility – evidenced frequently on Twitter – is the wild card here.
Whatever the policy direction few in Asia (or anywhere else, for that matter) have faith that Trump will honor the long-standing commitments of the United States. And whatever smiling faces the photo ops portray or how many high-level trips are made to Asia, this dynamic will sap U.S. credibility and will dominate conversations in the offices of prime ministers and presidents around the world.
The results of a withdrawal of American leadership in Asia would be debilitating. Allies could begin hedging against the possibility that the US won’t have their back, moving quietly to accommodate Beijing – or conversely preparing for more direct conflict. China and North Korea may believe they can take advantage of Washington’s inconstancy and growing divisions between the US and its allies. Over time, America would find itself out in the cold in Asia, and Asia’s stability and prosperity would be at risk.