Last month, just weeks after Donald Trump’s election win, U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Peru to attend the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader’s summit. At the meeting he urged his counterparts in the region to maintain their faith in the United States, even in the wake of Trump’s unapologetic “America First” worldview and protectionist barbs, most notably his pledge to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) within days of entering the White House next January.
It is little wonder many U.S. allies in the region are worried. Trump chastised his opponent Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail for her support of the TPP as secretary of state and called the agreement a “disaster.” He questioned the value of strengthening alliance networks in the region, (a pillar of Obama’s rebalance) and criticized Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea for free-riding on U.S. security guarantees. At one point, he even mused about both countries’ attaining nuclear weapons programs of their own rather than relying on Washington’s. Finally, Trump notoriously singled out China, the world’s second-largest economy, as a currency manipulator that was “raping” the United States through unfair trade practices. He has also, since being elected, made the provocative and unprecedented move of having a phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen—one certain to anger Beijing.
AN ATMOSPHERE OF UNCERTAINTY
Trump’s national security and foreign affairs picks add to the uncertainty. General Michael Flynn, the national security advisor, has a background in the Middle East and seems to have zeroed-in on counterterrorism as his main priority. He has chosen General James Mattis, a decorated but controversial career Marine, as his Secretary of Defense. Trump has yet to make a proposed appointment for secretary of state, but none of the rumored options appear to be particularly experienced in East Asian affairs.
At present, countries in the region are wondering whether Obama’s rebalance to the Asia–Pacific will be confined to a diplomatic dustbin, as well as how Trump will deal with China’s continued rise as both an economic and military power. Asian leaders have met the uncertainty with a mix of panic, caution, and befuddlement. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hurriedly made a congratulatory phone call to the president-elect and arranged an unplanned pre-inauguration meeting with Trump in New York on his way to attend the APEC summit. After the meeting, Abe expressed “confidence” in his relationship with Trump going forward, but his actions belie such self-assurance. Meanwhile, Japan’s main liberal newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, editorialized: “Trump’s victory has created widespread international anxiety about the future . . . [and] will also test the ability of key countries like Japan to stand together and demonstrate their common will to work for global peace and stability.”
Similarly, Australia and South Korea have scrambled to understand what a Trump government will mean for Washington’s role in the region. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tried to calm anxiety by stressing that despite Trump’s rhetoric, the United States and Australia have “enduring shared interests.” Embattled South Korean President Park Geun-hye likewise called for cool heads and expressed certainty that Trump would remain a committed partner of Seoul to ensure a stable and secure Korean peninsula.
China too has been conflicted on how it should approach the Trump era. On one hand, Beijing was overjoyed at Clinton’s defeat, as there were understandable fears that she would have brought a tougher stance to relations with Beijing. But despite its state-run media’s eagerly highlighting Trump’s election as blow to the current political order, Beijing remains wary of Trump’s tough talk about China’s trade practices. Specifically, it worries that it will be an early target for economic hawks, such as UC Irvine Professor Peter Navarro and former Assistant Undersecretary of Defense Michael Pillsbury, who are part of Trump’s advisory team. Beijing also now has to deal with a potentially game-changing Trump administration regarding its cross-strait relationship with Taiwan.
THE OBAMA LEGACY
This is a key moment for Washington’s relationship with the Asia–Pacific region. The Obama administration made a genuine push to improve ties with Asian states through comprehensive engagement with the region’s diverse and rich markets, but also through reassuring allies of U.S. commitment to their security.
This rebalance had a number of successes, among them enhanced defense and security partnerships with treaty allies such as Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. The Obama administration also fostered less formalized defense and security relationships with friends in the region such as India, Malaysia, and Singapore. Even relations with Vietnam, once a sworn enemy, have improved with Washington’s decision to lift its decades-long embargo on selling lethal arms to the country. The Obama administration also highlighted multilateral cooperation. For example, he made the unprecedented—and intentionally unsubtle—move of inviting the heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a first ever U.S.–ASEAN summit meeting at Sunnylands earlier this year. The venue chosen was the same spot where Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their informal “shirt-sleeves” meeting in 2013.
Despite its successes, the rebalance has disappointed many in the region who felt there was more bark to it than bite. Key allies such as Japan saw Washington as unwilling to confront Beijing when it mattered most. In their view, Obama’s tiptoeing around the early stages of China’s blatant land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea emboldened Beijing to proceed—unimpeded—toward effective control of the disputed waterway. In a similar way, China has actively exploited the ambiguity created by Washington’s aversion to making explicit guarantees to the Philippines with respect to the Scarborough Shoal.
Further, although it is true that Trump’s protectionist line against trade has hijacked efforts to finalize the TPP, some leaders in the region such as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have pointed out that it was the Obama administration’s slow-drag on TPP negotiations that allowed the pact to become political fodder for the election season to begin with.
TRUMP’S PATH FORWARD
In its first few months, the Trump administration must take a deep and principled look at U.S. interests and engagement in the region—including at some of the initiatives inherited from Obama’s rebalance. For reasons central to U.S. national interests and security—such as stability in the Korean peninsula and the avoidance of escalation with China—it will be prudent to maintain, and further enhance, U.S. security relationships in the region. This effort should start with Washington’s most important regional allies—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—but should also include mending ties with Thailand and the Philippines. The Trump administration should also enhance relationships with emerging partners such as India and Vietnam.
Moreover, Trump must realize that words matter—especially in this region. Trump should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric accusing Japan and South Korea of free loading and make his case in a less aggressive manner, for example by diplomatically advocating higher defense budgets for those countries. Such a push could actually accelerate current upticks in national defense spending in Japan and stir questions in South Korea about its willingness to dedicate more resources to security. Simply put, the Trump administration should treat its allies in the region as partners, not clients.
Trump can stress the United States’ security commitment to the region and articulate how his plans to increase the size of the U.S. Navy will enhance Washington’s naval posture, which will be to its partners’ benefit. The next administration should also clearly express its commitment to the freedom of navigation in the maritime domain and its opposition to the forceful change of the regional status quo by Beijing, underscoring these as vital U.S. interests. (One of Trump’s advisors, former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, recently indicated a desire to trade a promise by U.S. to not challenge China’s political system in exchange for Beijing’s acceptance of the status quo. But given Trump’s phone call with Tsai last week, this seems unlikely.) Finally, it is critical to reassure Asian allies that the United States will not undertake any grand bargain that sacrifices regional security—through tacit acquiescence to Chinese maritime ambitions—for potential concessions from Beijing on trade.
It is critical to reassure Asian allies that the United States will not undertake any grand bargain that sacrifices regional security for potential concessions from Beijing on trade.
The incoming administration must also reaffirm the United States’ longstanding commitment to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Trump should walk back any prior inclinations of “one-man” diplomacy with the regime in North Korea and should reassure Japan and South Korea that this issue will be dealt with collaboratively. During the election campaign, Trump indicated that he was willing to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, even on U.S. soil. But doing so would grant Pyongyang its longtime wish for direct diplomacy without any concessions on its growing nuclear and missile programs.
There is little hope for resuscitating the TPP under the Trump administration, and that will have both political and economic costs for the United States in the region. Trump should be open to looking at different ways to mold the TPP. He seems to favor bilateral agreements with the countries involved, such as Japan, rather than a large multilateral deal. However, Trump and his policy team should understand the limitations of bilateral deals—which would surely lack the high standards and concessions provided by the TPP and prove a drain on the time and resources of the U.S. Trade Representative’s office—and acknowledge the strategic consequences of viewing relations with Asia in merely country–country terms. Instead, Trump should look at ways to fundamentally reorient elements of the TPP.
But more important than the TPP itself is the issue of U.S. credibility in the region. As Singapore’s prime minister said prior to the election regarding Washington potentially abandoning the trade deal, “How can anybody [in the region] believe you anymore?” This erosion of faith in the United States is not based solely on trade, but greater doubts about Washington’s desire to remain a principal actor in shaping the region’s political and security landscape. Trump should do his best to allay such concerns by working with U.S. allies and partners in the region through concrete actions, adept diplomacy, and focused attention to the clear risks and opportunities unfolding there.