News Commentary

Enter the Trump administration: A new American foreign policy for Asia?

Renato Cruz De Castro - Philstar.com
Enter the Trump administration: A new American foreign policy for Asia?
In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

MANILA, Philippines (Stratbase ADR Institute) -- “And, yes, together, we will make America Great again,” US President Donald Trump said on January 20, 2017

Many have concluded that with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the Obama administration’s strategic rebalancing to East Asia is headed for a dead end.

This view often stems from President Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his pronouncements during the campaign that the bilateral alliance system in East Asia has been unfair to the US. On both military and economic fronts, it is difficult to see what the Trump administration has to offer. 

This hopeless view of the new administration in Washington, however, ignores the principle behind the declaration of the original rebalancing strategy: that on the basis of geography, interests, and values, the US is a Pacific power that needs to play an important role in shaping the future of this dynamic region.

As Ralph Cossa, an American analyst, put it: “America’s commitment to Asia is not new. We had presence in Asia even before we had a west coast and the region continues to grow in importance to the US, politically, economically, and strategically, with every passing year.”

Cossa says, “America’s focus on Asia as a national security priority has been a bipartisan constant since the end of the Cold War and the centrality of the US alliance system in Asia—as in Europe (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)—has been a bipartisan constant since 1950s.”

American unilateralism ahead

In an essay in Foreign Policy, two of President Trump’s foreign policy advisers — Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro —discussed what a Trump-led Asia policy would look like.

Gray and Navarro’s vision faults the Obama-era rebalancing policy for “talking loudly but carrying a small stick, one that had led to more, not less, aggression and instability in the region.” 

In the essay, the two reveal that a modified rebalancing strategy will continue under Trump’s administration.

They make six main assertions about the Obama Administration’s rebalancing strategy:

(1) that the US had lost sight of Asia during the 10 years of war in the Middle East

(2) that the Obama administration had been right to reassure Asian allies, but the rebalance has failed to reflect the US military commitment to Asia

(3) that there is bipartisan support for the rebalance, especially given China’s military buildup and muscle flexing

(4) that, under Trump, the US would re-appraise its interests in the region and work with countries that share its goals

(5) that the Trump administration would pursue a policy of ‘peace through strength’ by building up the Navy from 274 to 350 ships

and (6) that, while the US would continue to guarantee the liberal order in Asia, it would ask Japan and South Korea to contribute more to the cost of sustaining a US presence in their countries.

In their essay, Gray and Navarro call for a detailed plan for rebuilding American armed forces given that “US military presence is very necessary and essential for liberal values like freedom of navigation to prevail.”Interestingly, while supporting a massive buildup of US naval power, the essay is silent on the need for Americanparticipation in East Asian multilateral institutions.

Instead, it advocates a strategic rebalancing based on sheer American naval power and unmitigated unilateralism. 

Revisiting Obama's pivot to Asia

During the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in September 2016, then US President Barack Obama declared “Our position is stronger and sends a clear message that as a Pacific nation we’re here to stay.”

Throughout his second term as president, he made certain that the Asia-Pacific region remained the focal point of US strategic and diplomatic attention as he build-up American forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific, strengthened his country’s bilateral alliances, forged new security partnerships with a number of East Asian states, and boosted US participation in regional organizations.

Although unsuccessful, he worked hard for the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to ensure the US’s economic leadership in East Asia in the face of China’s growing economic clout in the region.  

The Obama administration’s strategic rebalancing to Asia was a grand strategy to pursue American national interests and promote its values in East Asia. Congruent with the United States’ long-standing diplomatic and strategic agenda, it sought to prevent the rise of a regional power that could threaten American political, economic and security interests. 

Its main goal had been to constrain China from enforcing its sovereign claim in the South China Sea, which China pursued by flaunting the maritime capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy and building artificial islands. 

It also opened an avenue for the Obama administration to extricate American forces bogged down in costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; This situation had led the US to underinvest in Asia.

The implementation of rebalancing strategy was derailed by several domestic and global developments that prompted Professor Sheldon Simon of Arizona State University to describe the strategy as a “work in progress.”

Perspectives from the Trump administration

Based on the little we have seen from the Trump administration, it appears that the rebalance will shift from constrainment based on assurance to constrainment based on a clearcut deterrence strategy.

One change in focus, the massive buildup of the US Navy in the Western Pacific, will convey to China that the US is prepared to strategically confront a peer competitor (or competitors).

One result could be a heightened arms race to achieve preponderance over China, which is shoring up its anti-access and area denial (A2/D2) capabilities.

A second result could be to show American resolve to constrain China, at the risk of waging a conventional naval warfare in the Pacific.

Recently,the Chinese have been rattled by President Trump’s acceptance of a phone call from the president of Taiwan,Secretary of State-designated Rex Tillerson’s statement of conducting a blockade of Chinese artificial islands in the South China Seas, and recently, by President Trumph’s inaugural speech that blamed foreign trade practices for failing to put “America first.”

The Chinese military is alarmed by Mr. Tillerson’s statement that its vessels and personnel should be denied access to islands it had constructed in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The People’s Daily declared that no amount of “word bombs”, such as Tillerson’s South China Sea remarks, could stop China’s military drills in the disputed waters.

China has also threatened the US of a nuclear war if it will militarily intervene in the South China Sea.

China is also expecting the Trump Administration to bring American–owned factories back to the US and to use Washington’s informal ties with Taipei as “a bargaining chip”for them to put trade pressure on Beijing

The Chinese state-run national tabloid, the Global Times, warned that President Trump’s inaugural speech indicated that the US and China would eventually confront each other in a global trade war. Thus, it warned its people that “the Trump Administration will be igniting many fires on its (China’s) front door and around the world.” 

However, it is still too early to say whether or not this concept of “Peace through Strength” will be the basic tenet of the Trump administration’s Asia policy.

Any foreign policy the Trump Administration will adopt toward Asia will still need to be guided by America’s historic goals in Asia: promoting free trade; and preventing the hegemonic ambition of a regional power that could threaten US political, economic, and strategic interests in the region.However, voicing his concern on the nature of President Trump’s foreign policy on Asia, Professor Simon warns:

As a prominent businessman and property developer, Mr. Trump speaks of his ability to make deals. 

This suggests that his approach to international politics will be transactional rather than values-based.

How can America benefit from its relations with any given country, particularly economically but also politically. He is less interested in broad principles: promoting democracy, human rights, and a stable international order than in specific deals.

If the United States provides military assistance and a security guarantee, what does a partner country offer in return? If this modus operandi is accurate, the world will experience a very different American profile than the one that prevailed over the past eight years. 



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