In This Review
Donald Trump ran for office promising to overturn U.S. policy toward Asia. He threatened to launch a trade war against China, calling for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports to the United States and promising to label Beijing a currency manipulator. After his election as U.S. president, he broke with four decades of precedent when he spoke to Taiwan’s leader on the phone and declared that the United States might not uphold the “one China” policy—the foundation of U.S.-Chinese ties—under which the United States does not formally recognize the Taiwanese government. On his first full weekday in office, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-nation, U.S.-led trade deal that many in the American foreign policy establishment saw as crucial to preserving U.S. influence in the region.
Since then, however, Trump has appeared to adopt a more traditional posture. He recognized the “one China” policy in February during his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His secretary of defense, James Mattis, traveled to Japan and South Korea to reassure leaders in both places that the United States remains a committed ally, despite Trump’s comments on the campaign trail that the United States could save money if those countries developed their own nuclear weapons. Soon thereafter, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort, in Florida, where he assured him that the U.S.-Japanese relationship “runs very, very deep.”
In short, it remains too early to tell what the Trump administration’s overall strategy toward Asia will be. Although written before the presidential election, two new books offer some sound advice. The Pivot, by Kurt Campbell, who served in Barack Obama’s administration, and By More Than Providence, by Michael Green, who worked for President George W. Bush, are essential guides to understanding U.S. policy in Asia. They reflect a bipartisan consensus among American scholar-practitioners that U.S. leadership remains irreplaceable for ensuring the region’s future peace and prosperity—a consensus that the Trump administration would do well to heed. A third new book, meanwhile, The End of the Asian Century, by Michael Auslin, charts some of the dangers that lie ahead if the region fails to manage its many risks.
THE INDISPENSABLE NATION
In January, in front of a packed audience at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Xi delivered a strong defense of globalization. He signaled that China was prepared to lead the liberal international order if the United States was not. But Xi’s speech was as much a tacit admission of nervousness about the erosion of that order as it was a declaration of confidence in China’s power: Xi offered no real alternative to the international system that the United States has built over the past seven decades.
In reality, China cannot lead the current global order. The leader of an open system must itself be open, and the Chinese Communist Party is concerned that further liberalization may jeopardize its rule. Growth in China has slowed, labor and social unrest are widespread, and Xi’s anticorruption campaign has unsettled party cadres. External confidence masks internal insecurity. U.S. leadership in Asia remains indispensable.
No one is more aware of this reality than Campbell, one of the United States’ most distinguished diplomats, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009 to 2013 and was one of the chief architects of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the policy for which his book is named. Campbell’s central argument is a sophisticated defense of that policy, and he makes a powerful case for its continuation: “It is time,” he writes, “to finally elevate Asia to a new prominence in the councils of American policymaking.” Most countries in the region welcomed more U.S. attention to Asia by the Obama administration after Bush’s Middle Eastern entanglements. But the policy was poorly named. A pivot connotes inconsistency: what pivots one way can easily swing another. As Campbell himself notes, “words . . . create perceptions, and incorrect perceptions can obscure the truth.” The label reinforced a talking point that Beijing never tires of repeating: that the United States is an unreliable partner.
U.S. leadership in Asia remains indispensable.
Every new administration feels compelled to emphasize how its policies differ from those of its predecessor, and the Obama administration was no exception. But it would have been better to have stressed the consistency of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific. To Green, who served as senior director for Asia on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, U.S. policy in the region has had a central unifying theme since 1783: “The United States will not tolerate any other power establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.” Green’s book is diplomatic history at its best. Drawing on archival work, interviews, and his own experience as a policymaker, Green carefully traces how American strategists have thought about East Asia from the eighteenth century to the present day.
He argues that five tensions, which “reappear with striking predictability,” have defined U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific over the past two centuries: the tension between prioritizing Europe and prioritizing Asia (he argues that when the United States’ Asia strategy has been an afterthought to its policy in Europe or the Middle East, “American policy in the region has proven deeply flawed”); between emphasizing relations with continental powers and emphasizing those with maritime powers (or between relations with China and relations with Japan); between promoting self-determination and promoting universal values; between protectionism and free trade; and between forward defense and Pacific depth. “The Pacific Ocean does not provide sanctuary against threats emanating from the Eurasian heartland,” he writes, “if the United States itself is not holding the line at the Western Pacific.”
THE GREAT REJUVENATION
Auslin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, also recognizes the centrality of the U.S. role. He has created what he calls a “risk map” of Asia: “a user’s guide to the dangers growing in the world’s most dynamic region.” Asia, according to Auslin, is “riddled with unseen threats”: economic stagnation, demographic pressures, unfinished political revolutions, the lack of regional unity, and, most dangerous of all, the risk of war.
These warnings serve as a useful reminder. But the risks he identifies are not as “unseen” as he claims. As far back as 1988, when the idea that the twenty-first century might prove to be “the Asian century” first began to gain currency, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping warned Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, “If both China and India do not prosper, it will not be an Asian century.” Most Asian leaders have recognized that unless they tread carefully, the continent will not succeed. Managing the risks Auslin describes consumes much of the day-to-day politics and diplomacy of the region.
If Islamophobia appears to become central to U.S. policy, the administration will alienate Muslim communities across Southeast Asia.
Part of Asia’s problem, Auslin argues, is that “more than any other region except perhaps the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific remains fettered by centuries of history.” Asia, he concludes, has never recovered from the fall of “the last stable political order in Asia, the Qing Empire,” in 1911. This is a serious misreading of history that distorts Asia’s contemporary security challenges.
Auslin fails to recognize that even at its height in the fourteenth century, during the Ming dynasty, the traditional Chinese order was as much a set of rituals as it was a real political system enforced by Chinese power. By 1911, that order existed only in the minds of Qing mandarins who had retained their sense of China’s innate superiority even though China had become powerless to stop the encroachments of Japan and the Western powers. Since the end of World War II, the stability and prosperity of Asia have rested on the U.S.-led order.
Today, some echoes of the traditional Chinese order can be heard in Beijing’s desire to re-create a regional hierarchy with China at the top. The narrative that China is undergoing a “great rejuvenation”—a phrase that Xi has used more insistently than any of his predecessors—legitimizes the party’s right to rule, but it is, at its core, revanchist. Auslin’s apparent nostalgia for the traditional Chinese order blinds him to the fact that China’s ambition underlies many of the region’s tensions and explains why Chinese leadership will always prove controversial in East Asia. The key contemporary strategic challenge in the Asia-Pacific is the search for a stable accommodation between the ambitions of a rising China and the current U.S.-led order.
Auslin laments that “no effective regional political community,” such as NATO or the EU, has emerged to replicate the stability that the Qing dynasty once provided. Asia’s political diversity, he writes, “has so far prevented the region from uniting the way Europe has.” He dismisses the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—and its latest initiative, the East Asia Summit (EAS), which brings together most of the countries in the region, plus Russia and the United States, in an annual gathering—as insufficiently ambitious and unable to replace the order of the Qing dynasty. But the policymakers who devised ASEAN in the 1960s never intended for it to replace the Qing order, or for it to be Asia’s equivalent of the EU. As Auslin himself recognizes, “ASEAN’s primary goal has always been to forge closer ties among its own members.” And the EAS was meant only to supplement, not supplant, the U.S.-led order.
To secure peace in the region more effectively, Auslin proposes a U.S.-led regional security architecture that would begin by sorting U.S. partners into two geographically determined “concentric triangles.” The outer triangle would consist of Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea. The inner triangle would connect Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. In such a system, Auslin argues, Washington should focus on promoting “a common set of rules, norms, behaviors, and coordination among the region’s leading nations.”
Auslin never convincingly explains how such a design would be superior to the existing U.S.-led order or facilitate the strategic adjustments that are under way between the United States and China. Nor is Auslin’s system especially original, since its membership and goals are essentially the same as those of the EAS. Auslin’s recommendation that Washington “encourage larger nations to play a more significant role in helping protect the rules-based order” is precisely what the Obama administration tried to do by supporting the EAS.
The EAS is modest in its ambitions because it confronts a paradox: it works best when it does not work too well. As a result, the major powers find it occasionally useful, while remaining confident that it will not threaten their vital interests. Would either the United States or China have supported the EAS if it thought the EAS would constrain its freedom of action? Would the region be better off if both or either of these powers shunned the EAS? If the EAS has failed to persuade Beijing to abide by a rules-based order and abandon its preference for a hierarchical East Asian system based on the presumption of Chinese superiority, there is little reason to think that drawing new shapes on a map will make much of a difference.
All three of these books were written before the U.S. election, and the country’s foreign policy may now change dramatically. Trump’s overall strategy remains undefined, but some elements of the new administration’s approach have already become clear. Trump will probably be less interested than most of his predecessors were in promoting democracy abroad. Many members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment have expressed dismay at this break from American diplomatic tradition. Auslin, for his part, argues that “the best way to reduce risk” is “to encourage wider liberalization throughout the region,” especially in China. “The goal is not to change the Chinese government,” he insists, but to “make available liberal ideas and viewpoints that ordinary Chinese normally do not experience” and to “encourage those voices in China struggling for civil society, and to let them know they are not alone.”
It is delusional to think that the Chinese Communist Party would regard such an approach as anything but a blatant attempt to undermine its rule. If Washington prioritizes the spread of liberal ideas, it will damage U.S.-Chinese relations and magnify, not reduce, the risks of instability in Asia. Too often in the past, the United States has behaved as if it enjoys a monopoly on legitimate values. This attitude has complicated its relationships and discomforted countries that might otherwise be inclined to be friendly.
The only issue over which China must fight is Taiwan.
Last December, for example, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that Trump had endorsed his violent antidrug campaign, which has left more than 6,000 people dead, and invited him to the White House. Human rights activists and many in the foreign policy establishment were quick to criticize Trump for what they regarded as his less-than-steadfast adherence to the promotion of human rights. But engaging with Duterte will not render U.S. diplomacy less effective in curbing extrajudicial killings. Under Obama, moralistic pressures only hardened Duterte’s position and damaged ties between the two countries. In September, for example, Duterte responded to Obama’s criticism by calling him a “son of a whore.” Duterte is the current chair of ASEAN, reason enough to invite him to the White House. Trump’s overtures may have already helped mend the relationship: Duterte has recently downplayed his earlier calls for “separation” from the United States and said that he will honor U.S.-Philippine defense agreements.
Self-righteous posturing may feel good, but actually doing good requires pragmatism. Critics of the Trump administration should take note of the Obama administration’s opening to Myanmar (also called Burma), one of its major achievements, and one in which Campbell played an important role. After decades of sanctions under administrations of both parties had failed to promote political reform, Washington realized it needed to offer some carrots along with sticks. By engaging with Myanmar, the Obama administration encouraged Myanmar’s military-led government to continue the tentative political reforms it had begun in 2003; boosted Myanmar’s economy; loosened Beijing’s grip on Myanmar; and improved U.S. relations with its Asian allies, none of which supported isolating the country. Realistic diplomat that he is, Campbell concedes that Myanmar’s “ultimate political trajectory remains unknowable,” but he is correct to conclude that the “shift in Burma’s political system has been striking and heartening.” Trump should emulate this pragmatic approach.
TRUMP GOES TO CHINA?
If the Trump administration’s lack of enthusiasm for promoting democratic values is unlikely to harm U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, some of its other policies may prove more damaging. Pulling out of the TPP, for example, undermined U.S. credibility. Trump wants the United States to project strength abroad, and most countries in Asia would welcome a strong U.S. posture. But projecting strength is not just a matter of maintaining military dominance. It also requires preserving confidence in the United States, a task made much harder by U.S. domestic politics, the vagaries of which are not as well understood abroad as many Americans might think. Washington’s withdrawal from the TPP reinforced Beijing’s central message that the United States is an unreliable ally.
Still, the TPP’s defeat does not represent “an unalloyed triumph for China,” as Gardiner Harris and Keith Bradsher of The New York Times wrote in November. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is now the only multilateral trade agreement being negotiated in the region. Although it does not include the United States, RCEP is not a Chinese initiative, as is often claimed: it is an ASEAN initiative intended to connect the group with six countries with which ASEAN already has free-trade agreements. Four of the six—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea—are U.S. treaty allies. A fifth, India, is hardly a Chinese stooge.
Three RCEP members—Australia, Singapore, and South Korea—currently have bilateral free-trade agreements with the United States, and Trump has given no indication that he wishes to cancel them. His administration has said that it will seek a bilateral trade agreement with Japan, suggesting that even if it rejects multilateral trade deals, it is not pursuing an outright protectionist agenda and understands that in Asia, trade is strategy. The Trump administration may seek to replace the TPP with a hub-and-spoke approach, in which the United States (the hub) will strike bilateral trade deals with its partners (the spokes).
In security matters, Trump will probably have little patience with multilateral diplomacy through forums such as the EAS and ASEAN, which stress the gradual accumulation of small steps. But the Obama administration’s emphasis on multilateralism was a historical exception, and Trump’s attitude toward ASEAN will likely prove a relatively minor issue. Far more serious are the potential geopolitical risks of the new administration’s harsh anti-Muslim stance. If Islamophobia appears to become central to U.S. policy, the administration will alienate Muslim communities across Southeast Asia, and the leaders of countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia will struggle to justify their continued support for the United States.
The Trump administration has reaffirmed U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea and has neither said nor done anything to suggest that the United States will withdraw from the region and allow China to establish its preferred regional order. As a result, the situation in the South China Sea will remain a stalemate: Washington cannot force Beijing to abandon the artificial islands it has constructed or stop the Chinese from deploying military assets on them, but neither can China prevent the United States from operating in the area without risking a major conflict that China cannot win and that might threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.
The only issue over which China must fight is Taiwan, because the party’s rule would not survive if Taiwan achieved independence. When Trump reaffirmed the “one China” policy during his telephone call with Xi in February, some analysts portrayed it as a victory for the Chinese. But the Trump administration has not accepted China’s interpretation of the “one China” policy—indeed, it cannot, because the Taiwan Relations Act prevents it from doing so, just as the act constrained previous administrations. Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his subsequent posts on Twitter, in which he asked rhetorically whether the Chinese had bothered to seek U.S. agreement when they built a “massive military complex” in the South China Sea or “devalue[d] their currency,” were unorthodox, but they made a legitimate point: if China expects the United States to consider its interests, it cannot ignore U.S. interests.
Taiwan, for its part, like much of the region, is nervous that under Trump, a more transactional United States might be tempted to sacrifice its interests in a grand U.S.-Chinese bargain, in which the two countries would divide Asia into spheres of influence. But such an agreement is unlikely, and as China tries to realize its ambitions, it faces an inescapable dilemma. To establish its preferred hierarchical regional order, Beijing must push Washington out of the center of the strategic equation and occupy that space itself. But if China erodes confidence in the U.S. alliance system, Japan might very well become a nuclear weapons state. Japan already has a stockpile of plutonium and the capability to develop nuclear weapons rapidly. If Japan acquires nuclear weapons, South Korea and perhaps even Taiwan would have strong incentives to follow suit—an outcome that China would much rather avoid.
For almost 30 years, Washington has allowed Japan to reprocess nuclear fuel from the United States, permitting Japan to master the nuclear fuel cycle, a privilege the United States has granted to no other country. In effect, the United States has long acquiesced in, if not actively aided, Japan’s preparations to become a nuclear weapons state. During the presidential campaign, the U.S. media and the American foreign policy establishment criticized Trump for suggesting that he could accept a nuclear Japan and a nuclear South Korea. But his attitude was not as irresponsible as some claimed.
Even if Trump wishes to strike a grand bargain with China, he will not tolerate appearing to be weak. Campbell’s “pivot” may fade from memory, but the Trump administration will still seek to project strength in the region. Under Trump, as under any U.S. president, East Asia will remain an arena of great-power competition. Ultimately, the region will deal with the Trump administration the same way it has always dealt with change: by adapting.