Donald Trump’s Pivot Through Asia

President Obama’s signature rebalance to the Pacific never really got off the ground. Could Trump succeed where he failed?

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 12:  U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on November 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 12: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on November 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will have to wait until after he leaves office to see if some of his most touted foreign-policy achievements — such as the opening to Cuba and the Iranian nuclear deal — survive his presidency. But even before he exits, it is already obvious that his signature policy in East Asia, the “pivot” or “rebalance,” is deader than a dodo. And, no, it’s not just resting; it’s nailed to the perch.

China’s brazen seizure of a U.S. underwater drone on December 15 in international waters makes that clear. That China handed it back a few days later hardly makes up for this act of thievery without any conceivable legal justification, given that the area in the South China Sea where the drone was taken is outside even the fanciful limits claimed by Beijing in its “nine-dash line.” Unless this was an insubordinate act of a lowly naval captain (which no one in Beijing has suggested), it was a message that China can do what it wants in the Western Pacific and the United States can’t stop it.

That message is communicated even more potently by China’s ongoing efforts to fortify its man-made islands in the South China Sea, transforming them into unsinkable weapons platforms for threatening the U.S. Navy and the navies of neighboring states. Obama’s Pacific pivot was designed, in part, to move greater American military and diplomatic muscle into the region to stop this Chinese power grab, but it has singularly failed to achieve any significant results.

Another building block of the rebalance was Obama’s commitment to a free trade system that would bring the nations of East Asia, minus China, into closer alignment with Washington. But the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership was already in trouble before the election, having been rejected by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Following Trump’s victory on a protectionist platform, congressional leaders decided not to bring it up for ratification during the lame-duck session. This leaves the way clear for China to push its competing free trade treaty — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — which excludes the United States. Close U.S. allies, including Australia, South Korea, and Japan, have all expressed an interest in joining the Sino-centric RCEP.

There are other signs that East Asian states are gravitating toward the Middle Kingdom and away from Uncle Sam. In early November, Malaysian Prime Minister Nijab Razak journeyed to Beijing for a high-profile summit that resulted in the signing of trade deals worth $34 billion. This included Malaysia’s first-ever agreement to purchase weaponry from China — four navy ships.

Razak’s summit came just after another visit to Beijing, this one by renegade Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen a reign of terror in the name of fighting drugs that has resulted in the deaths of at least 2,000 people since he took office in June. In Beijing, Duterte announced: “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” Duterte keeps threatening to prohibit U.S. military forces from visiting the Philippines. He calls Americans, including President Obama, “sons of bitches” and praises China for having “the kindest soul of all.” “So what do I need America for?” he demands.

Donald Trump appears determined to curb China’s growing power — symbolized for him by the U.S. trade deficit with China — even as he also prepares an opening to Moscow. Hence Trump’s call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2, the first time that a U.S. president or president-elect has spoken to a Taiwan president since 1979; this was clearly intended as a shot across Beijing’s bow. Yes, that’s right: Trump also wants to “reset” relations with Russia and “pivot” to the Pacific, just as Obama once hoped to do. Is there any reason to expect that this policy will be any more successful the second time around?

When it comes to dealing with China, Trump has two points in his favor — his air of menacing unpredictability and his commitment to raise defense spending — although both come with major asterisks attached.

Many commentators have suggested that Trump will seek to emulate Nixon’s “madman” act in order to pressure China and other adversaries into making concessions. Admittedly, the madman theory did not work for Nixon — he failed to spook Hanoi into ending the Vietnam War in 1969 as he had hoped. But Trump might be able to do a more convincing impression of a war-mongering lunatic; in his case the act, in fact, might be all too authentic. Certainly China will be more worried about tangling with Trump than with “No Drama” Obama. Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen suggests that he has a penchant for brinkmanship that his predecessor, for better or worse, lacks. Trump could thus bludgeon China into making concessions — or blunder into a war that no one wants.

Trump’s other trump card, so to speak, is his advocacy of expanding the U.S. armed forces. He has called for increasing the Army from 450,000 active-duty soldiers to 540,000, the Marine Corps from 182,000 Marines to 200,000, the Navy from 272 deployable ships to 350, and the Air Force from 1,141 combat aircraft to 1,200. The increases to the Navy and Air Force are particularly significant in the context of the Pacific, where China’s expanding arsenal of missiles and submarines has been tilting the balance of power against the U.S. 7th Fleet. The problem is that Trump has given no hint of how he will pay for this buildup, which will cost a minimum of $363 billion over four years. Given that Trump has also announced plans for massive infrastructure spending and tax cuts, it is far from obvious that congressional budget hawks will allow him to ramp up defense spending.

Against these uncertain advantages must be balanced the many problems Trump will confront in trying to change the balance of power in Asia. It’s not simply a matter of his lack of knowledge of the region or his lack of experience in diplomacy or national security affairs. Or his taste for intemperate rhetoric and his habit of firing off late-night tweets. There is also his long-standing hostility to American allies, whom he sees as ungrateful freeloaders, and to free trade, which he sees as a rip-off.

Since the election, Trump has had conversations with the leaders of South Korea and Japan in which he was said to have reassured them he will not abandon U.S. alliances. But what will happen if he demands, as he has said he will do, that South Korea and Japan pay more for the privilege of being protected by the United States? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye are pro-American enough that they might agree. But Park is now in the process of being ousted in impeachment proceedings. The leading opposition candidates to succeed her — the leftist Moon Jae-in and the populist Lee Jae-myung (who has been labeled “Korea’s Trump”) — are considerably less pro-American and more inclined to conciliate, rather than confront, North Korea. If one of them wins the presidency, and Trump demands more payment for protection, South Korea just might let U.S. troops leave without a fight. And if that were to happen, America’s standing in the Pacific region would plummet.

So, too, if Beijing proceeds with its RCEP trade accord while Washington makes no attempt to revive the TPP, America’s influence will also decline. Even worse will occur if Trump boosts tariffs and declares a trade war with China — which would amount to a mutual suicide pact, given the extent to which the Chinese and American economies are interconnected. The odds of this self-destructive policy being implemented have now increased with the appointment of arch-protectionist Peter Navarro, who wrongly claims that trade with China is killing the U.S. economy, to lead a new National Trade Council at the White House. Erecting tariff barriers will hurt the U.S. economy and vastly decrease America’s influence in Asia.

If he is serious about making good on Pacific Pivot, Part II, Trump will need to rethink his aversion to allies and to free trade — along with his habit of unleashing his id every time he opens his mouth or sends a tweet. The new president will soon discover that Xi Jinping, if he feels insulted, has far more potent means of retaliation than “Little Marco” Rubio, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, or “Crooked Hillary” Clinton could possibly have imagined.

Photo credit: FENG LI/Getty Images

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot

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