Shadow Government

Is Trump’s Stance on East Asia Less Radical Than Expected?

The secretary of defense's trip to Asia reassured U.S. allies.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on February 4, 2017. / AFP / TORU YAMANAKA        (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on February 4, 2017. / AFP / TORU YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration recently scored a diplomatic success of sorts, although it got lost in the flood of headlines about the president’s foreign policy controversies: Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense James Mattis just concluded constructive visits to Japan and South Korea. While Mattis certainly benefitted from low expectations — the president’s phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull set a low bar — the former general conveyed a reassuring message that U.S. allies received eagerly.

Yet what was most remarkable about this visit to East Asia was its consistency with the Obama administration’s approach to security issues in the region and inconsistency with President Donald Trump’s rhetoric from the 2016 campaign.

Recall the revolution in American foreign policy that Trump proclaimed during the campaign. While President Barack Obama had pursued a “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific in order to sustain and strengthen U.S. leadership in the region, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric suggested that the United States would turn away from its traditional role as a global leader. On Asia specifically, Trump intimated that the United States might withdraw its forces and not come to the defense of its allies if they did not contribute more, and mused that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear capabilities. The message from Trump was clear: Pay up, or you’re on your own.

This was not the message Mattis brought with him to East Asia. In Seoul, Mattis repeated long-standing assurances that the United States would defend its South Korean ally. Standing with his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Han Min-goo, Mattis used language almost identical to the Obama administration’s formulation, saying, “any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.” Mattis also reaffirmed the decision by Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system to the Korean peninsula. There was no indication that there was any discussion of the financial support arrangements that candidate Trump had so strongly criticized.

In Tokyo, Mattis reassured Japan that the United States remained committed to Japan’s defense in the face of threats from China and North Korea. He described Japan’s financial support to U.S. forces as “a model of cost-sharing,” and the issue did not come up in his meeting with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Mattis also said that Japan’s defense spending was “on the right track,” a statement that ran counter to candidate Trump’s frequent complaints that U.S. allies take advantage of America.

We therefore have a situation in which the secretary of defense reassured U.S. allies with the same positions, and at times almost the same language, as an administration that Trump had previously lambasted. While U.S. allies undoubtedly feel somewhat reassured that the United States still has their back, it remains unclear how to interpret Mattis’s message in light of Trump’s previous comments.

One possible explanation for this dichotomy is that Trump’s approach to East Asia may not be as radically different from Obama’s as the campaign rhetoric indicated. It is possible that the White House will jettison candidate Trump’s fiery rhetoric on alliances (at least in Asia), along with “lock her up” and other slogans that Trump found to be useful politically but untenable or unrealistic to pursue as president. If so, this would be a positive development — not only because it suggests an embrace of Obama’s policies and strategies toward the region, but also because it suggests that Trump is willing to adapt his approach as he learns more about the issues. This would not be unprecedented — President John F. Kennedy, for example, campaigned on closing the so-called “missile gap,” but changed course when he learned that the gap did not, in fact, exist. Good leaders adapt when presented with new information, and an adjustment by Trump in this area would be a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, it is also possible that Mattis and Trump are simply not on the same page when it comes to U.S. alliances in Asia, and that Trump will re-attack when he refocuses on these issues. Since his inauguration, other than announcing the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and conducting some courtesy calls with other heads of state, Trump has mostly focused on issues not related to the Asia-Pacific. This could mean that Trump simply hasn’t turned his attention to the region enough to make the kind of drastic statements that he did on the campaign. Accordingly, Trump’s calls for a far more confrontational and less reassuring approach to U.S. allies may reappear. If Trump reiterates some of the more radical pronouncements he made as a candidate, the geopolitical dynamics of the Asia-Pacific could change dramatically — and not for the better. A move by Trump in this direction would also significantly undermine the credibility of Mattis and others in the administration who have sought to reassure U.S. allies and are advocating for a more traditional approach to the region.

The Trump administration will have an opportunity to clarify its approach to the Asia-Pacific when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington on Feb. 10. While talk of a large potential economic agreement will probably dominate the headlines, security issues will also come up. Will Trump reiterate Obama’s statement that U.S. security commitments cover the Senkaku islands, an area also claimed by China? Will Trump press Abe on further increasing Japanese financial support to U.S. forces and increasing Japan’s defense budget? Will the president reiterate his previous threat to withdraw U.S. forces if Japan doesn’t pay more?

With the Trump administration still less than a month old and many of its key Asia-related policymaking positions not yet in place, it is understandable that the White House has not expressed a comprehensive strategy toward the Asia-Pacific. Yet the world is not standing still, and these issues should be on the agenda when Abe comes to town.

Top Photo: Mattis in Japan. TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images

Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia from 2015 through January 2017. Prior to that position, he was senior vice president at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Twitter: @AbeDenmark

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