Donald Trump Is Fixing America's Asia Policy
China ascendant, America declining and endangered -- that was the narrative, reflected in the East Asia security situation, that President Donald Trump inherited.
The Obama administration’s much-touted pivot or rebalance to Asia did nothing to reverse the negative trend in the Asia-Pacific balance of power -- indeed, the conscious reduction of resources for America’s military reinforced that trend.
Candidate Trump’s campaign vision of placing “America First” promised a different direction.
As president-elect, he resolved to brake China by breaking some china: withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, label China a currency manipulator at the risk of igniting a trade war, and withdraw support from Japan and South Korea unless they paid more for their own defense or even arm themselves with nuclear weapons, a fearsome prospect for Beijing.
The foreign policy establishment saw these as steps backward that would only worsen America’s predicament.
As president, Trump did take the United States out of TPP, but with the clear possibility of reopening negotiations on more favorable terms. And he accepted fresh assurances of resolve from Japan and South Korea -- even under the new Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul -- while re-committing Washington to the collective defense of those Asian allies in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula.
At the same time, the president demonstrated that other givens in the deteriorating East Asia security situation could no longer be taken for granted. He accepted a congratulatory, and unprecedented, phone call from Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, angering Beijing, then cast doubt on the one-China formulation that Beijing favors in its relations with Taipei.
Even after appearing to modulate his stances on those issues that are highly sensitive for Beijing, he made clear that they remained in play. He would give Beijing a pass on currency if it cooperated on North Korea. And he would consider having further conversations with President Tsai, depending on how overall U.S.-China relations were proceeding, again with North Korea as the most urgent issue. Meanwhile, preparations for a major new arms sale to Taiwan seem to be proceeding apace despite Beijing’s objections.
On East Asia’s third major flash point -- China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea -- the president unleashed the U.S. Navy from the shackles imposed on it by the previous administration in the conduct of Freedom of Navigation Operations. The USS Dewey steamed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of the artificial islands China has illegally constructed to support its unfounded claims of territorial seas throughout the South China Sea.
Unlike the three Obama administration FONOPS, which passed meekly in innocent passage, thereby inadvertently conceding Chinese maritime sovereignty, the Dewey conducted normal Navy operations in those international waters.
The Defense Department promised further robust FONOPS, though they would not all necessarily be carried out as full-out challenges to China. The frequency and degree of publicity given to future exercises may well depend on any additional moves China may make in the South China Sea; progress on the North Korea nuclear problem; and Chinese restraint on Taiwan as U.S. relations deepen with that democratic friend.
Meanwhile, other Seventh Fleet movements -- the gathering of two carrier groups near Korean waters -- reinforced the administration’s repeated warnings that if Beijing doesn’t use its unique leverage over Pyongyang to eliminate the threat it helped create and has duplicitously sustained, this administration will.
On balance, for all the perceived oscillation in presidential rhetoric, the U.S. position on North Korea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and security relations with our Asian allies, are stronger today than they were just four months ago. The negative legacy dynamic has been slowed if not yet entirely halted and promises to be reversed if the overall policy of firmness is maintained.
The moderate success of the Trump Asia policy to date is primarily the result of the president’s own out-of-the box strategic thinking and unorthodox negotiating style. (Striking Syria for violating Obama’s chemical weapons red line while lunching with Xi Jinping at Mar a Lago undoubtedly made a salutary impression on China’s strongman).
But a major part of the credit also goes to the superb national security team the president has assembled at the Cabinet level (and to him, by definition, for having chosen them): Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and, unexpectedly because of his exclusively business background, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
All have proved to be solid, mature, judicious advisers who have helped keep the ship of state, and Asia policy in particular, on an even keel while loyally and competently advancing the president’s ambitious national security agenda.
In the Asia component of U.S. foreign policy at least, there is much reason for confidence and hope. Steady as she goes.