During its long and eventful trip, the Trump Administration laid down important markers as it fashions its strategic approach to Asia. While North Korea is the most urgent issue the region faces, strategic competition with China is the most important. On the former count, Trump is working with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to develop a long-term approach that contains and rolls back the threat. On the latter count, Trump began to outline his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The anchor of a “grand strategy” for Asia is Japan. President Trump and Prime Minister Abe enjoy a warm relationship akin to that between George W. Bush and Jun’ichiro Koizumi. If the two stay close, the visions they outlined have a real chance of succeeding.
The first order of business for the United States and Japan was solidifying their common approach to North Korea. While “maximum pressure” appears to be affecting both North Korea and China, the policy needs more time. Many more Chinese and North Korean individuals and entities need to be sanctioned, and Beijing must see that its worst fears of a full-blown trilateral alliance between Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington will become a reality. At the same time, the Japanese and the Americans have to agree on possible strategic end states for the peninsula and on reactions to a host of contingencies should North Korea decide to use force.
South Korea represents a bigger challenge, as Moon Jae-in is not in perfect strategic harmony with Trump and Abe. The U.S. President did listen intently—an oft-overlooked characteristic of his diplomacy—to Moon’s plea for eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula. And the President’s speech in Korea was powerful and well received. No President has gone further in describing the contrast between freedom and prosperity in South Korea and atrocity and misery in the North. He outlined a vision for a free peninsula, though it is still unclear whether the Administration sees that aspiration as its grand strategic objective.
Bilateral with China
The trip to China was uneventful; there is little for the two countries to discuss as they disagree on almost everything. The real substance of China policy is made through actions to strengthen relations with U.S. allies and partners around China, through U.S. force posture, and through trade enforcement actions that will push back against China’s predatory practices. Despite the partisan shots at Trump, his trade approach to China enjoys widespread bipartisan support. He should be faulted, however, for his praise of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. Xi is a dictator, and China’s authoritarian rule is the single biggest cause of friction between the United States and China. Regrettably, it seems the current U.S. President, like his predecessor, has chosen the route of neglect in addressing China’s human rights abuses.
Most importantly, the U.S. government and the broader strategic community still have not internalized the reality that Xi has abandoned market reform and his economy is on a path toward stagnation. The danger is not of a stronger China overtaking the United States, but of a weaker but more aggressive China (think Putin’s Russia) lashing out or trying to achieve quick “wins.” A new approach to the region will have to account for this new reality.
The Free And Open Indo-Pacific
While China was a courtesy call at best, the most important parts of Trump’s trip were in Southeast Asia, where he began to lay out his vison for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The initial idea seems to have germinated in India and Japan.
This aspiration is promising, but needs to be translated into strategy and concrete plans. The idea is to create a stronger balance of power against China’s expansionism by further tying a very willing India into the East Asian region, and the United States, Japan, and Australia further into the Indian Ocean region. But there is a values dimension as well. The organizing structure appears to be the so called “quad” of the great maritime democracies: the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. All are committed to free societies, a free and open maritime commons stretching from the Western Pacific through the Indian Ocean, and the rule of law.
The problem is with open markets. The United States and Australia are the only almost fully open markets of the bunch (the United States still protects certain industries that are important to Southeast Asia, which is why the Trans-Pacific Partnership ended up weaker than it might have been). But India is certainly not a free and open market. Japan has been prepared to go quite far in opening its market further. The so called TPP-11 could help, as would a bilateral free trade agreement with Washington.
Thus, the economic dimension of the Indo-Pacific strategy will be most difficult. There really was no free trade champion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; for now, Americans seem to have had their fill of multilateral trade deals. Even so, President Trump has said he would negotiate “better” deals, and he should be encouraged to do so. The prizes are the Southeast Asian economies and India, where growth is held back thanks to high tariffs, high levels of state intervention and the dominance of state-owned enterprises. The Asian “South” and the United States may be the only potential drivers of global growth. As the United States continues to grow, and its market continues to far surpass that of China’s (by almost $45 trillion in net national wealth), it has enormous leverage on trade deals.
There is another piece to economic statecraft, and that is a response to the state-led construction and infrastructure projects China refers to as One Belt, One Road (OBOR). The United States made some strides in committing to joining with Japan’s version of the Overseas Private Investment Council to spur more regional private investment. But in the end, investment decisions will be made based on the market changes in the key countries such as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
On the one hand, the diplomatic road ahead is clearer. As he should have, the President offered to play a more diplomatically active role in the South China Sea dispute. His administration should offer to help allies and partners resolve disputes amongst them on the basis of hundreds of years of international maritime custom.
On the other hand, the diplomatic approach to Southeast Asia is complicated by its authoritarian turn and loss of trust in the United States after President Obama’s tepid response to China’s militarization and expansionism in the South China Sea.
Given the intensification of the competition with China, it is most important to put partnerships with countries like the Philippines and Thailand on firmer footing, and then, once trust is re-established, press them on human rights. This was the approach taken by Ronald Reagan that eventually led to Asia’s turn toward democracy. The other alternative is to lose these alliances to China while gaining nothing on human rights.
In short, the diplomatic piece of the new strategy could consist of a “superstructure” of the maritime democracies and a set of bilateral and trilateral engagements. (A big missing piece is Taiwan, a which is both free and open and could be an important piece of any maritime pushback against China.) The new diplomacy must also abandon a passive approach to diplomacy over maritime disputes.
The Military Dimension
On the military front, the United States can take three mains steps. The first priority must be to fix our own budgetary mess. The United States is running a global strategy for a 355-ship navy with just 274 ships. It will either begin to rebuild, or it will have to decide where in the world to stop making commitments. Arguably, the most reassurance the United States can provide Asia would be to fund a 355-ship navy.
Second, a security assistance program built for the Cold War must be fixed to ensure that our partners get what they need quickly, without imposing onerous, undue restrictions on how these capabilities are used. Critically, the United States finally has a real chance to knit together an Indo-Pacific maritime domain awareness system, as our Unmanned Aircrat Systems export policy changes to allow for wider exports, and more countries have similar fighter aircraft and Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Washington and its partners can ensure that the systems the allies and partners have bought become interoperable.
Third, with the White House no longer micromanaging Pacific Command, the military has all kinds of ideas about how to keep the maritime waterways free and open, and should be allowed to challenge China in the South China Sea and East China Sea in ways restricted over the past several years.
Getting Back in the Information Game
But the most important tool will be the rebuilding of U.S. capacity for public diplomacy, political warfare, and information campaigns. We have for too long ignored how powerful China’s global propaganda operations have become. Beijing’s mouthpieces constantly repeat the themes that China’s rise is inevitable and the United States is in decline. Unfortunately, these concepts are often repeated unwittingly in top American media. But these themes are easy to rebut because they are so far from reality. Despite the machismo, Xi is on the cusp of several mini-crises, including a trend toward a stagnant economy, a population that will look as old as Europe by 2030 but without the wealth, and imperial overstretch. China’s good money is leaving—for the United States.
In contrast, Asia’s “quad” has the truth on its side. China not only offers no compelling vision for the region as it cracks down on human rights and cultural and intellectual freedom, it is facing what Xi has called a deteriorating security situation—especially as it counts the forces of globalization as a security threat.
But the “free world” is not even fighting back against Chinese political warfare. For President Trump’s Asia vision to work, he needs to rebuild the United States Information Agency and realize that any success in Asia will be undermined by Chinese attempts to propagate a message to Asians that the United States is in decline and retreat.
In sum, President Trump laid out an inspiring vision for the future of Korea and a comprehensive outline to compete with China. But there are many potential pitfalls and minefields along the way—and the hard work of translating visions and aspirations into to concrete plans and policies has just begun.