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From Obama’s Asia Pivot to Trump’s China Bashing (Or, How to Provoke China Before Inauguration Day)

This week's events suggest the incoming administration might need more, not less, engagement with Asia.


At Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, U.S. President-elect Trump’s pick for secretary of state, much of the questioning focused on Tillerson’s (and, by extension, Trump’s) ties to and view of Russia. His answers exposed some daylight between his position and Trump’s take on U.S. policy toward Moscow. But the two seemed to be in tandem on China: that the United States would be taking a more aggressive stance against Beijing.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson told senators.

His answer amounted to more than just staking out a tough line on China. It was a stunning break with years of American foreign policy — as the United States has never taken a position on which country rightfully owns which island. Washington has long urged China to halt its massive dredging and island building in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. But Tillerson’s warning that the United States would block China’s access to the contested islands shocked and bewildered lawmakers and their aides, and diplomats across Asia. If carried out, it could violate international law as Washington has interpreted it and could put the United States on a collision course with China, raising the danger of a military clash.

On Thursday, China’s Foreign Minister Lu Kang responded, saying, “Like the U.S., China has the right within its own territory to carry out normal activities.”

What are those normal activities? On Wednesday, prior to Tillerson’s testimony, China sent its only aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait (Taiwan urged its citizens, whose leader is currently on a tour of Central America, to remain calm) and the Treasury Department imposed more sanctions on North Korea. This, a day after Japan and South Korea deployed fighter jets after noting that Chinese military planes were flying between the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.

There has been many a piece penned on how the so-called “pivot to Asia” — the Obama administration’s policy of increased attention to Asia (as opposed to the trans-Atlantic and the Middle East) — is over. And Wednesday’s national security-focused hearings (and Trump’s first post-election press conference, and the Russia dominated hearings ostensibly set up to discuss foreign cyber interference more generally) might give one reason to believe this is correct, and that Washington’s focus is not on Asia — and certainly not on engaging with Asia — anymore.

But this week’s events alone — coupled with an increasingly aggressive (and aging, and economically weakening) China, a Japan in the midst of re-militarization, and a North Korea that some believe has enough plutonium to make ten nuclear bombs, among other realities — may mean that the United States can’t pivot away.

Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the recently published book, The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region, believes that the region is now closer to conflict than it was eight years ago. Some of that is due to internal factors; some, due to external factors (he does not believe Obama’s strategic focus the region served to moderate Chinese behavior).

But defusing that potential conflict will require more, not less engagement, and it will require a coherent strategy (the last full Asia strategy was in 1998, Auslin argues). He says Trump, who has tweeted against China and North Korea and whom some believe will use the “One China” policy as a bargaining chip, is “stripping away niceties,” adding, “that’s not a strategy.”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin