Trump’s Attempt at Personal Diplomacy With Xi Is No Substitute for Strategy
The new administration needs an Asia plan. Here are six core principles.
President Donald Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a -Lago resort in Florida on Thursday will be a study in contrasts and geopolitical role reversal: The inward-looking, economic nationalist American president sees his country’s traditional leadership role as a burden and instead promises to put “America first,” while the post-Davos Chinese president has global ambitions.
Trump hasn’t been dealt the easiest of hands in Asia. The neo-authoritarian populism that has roiled the political waters globally has washed away reliable U.S. allies in the Philippines and replaced them with a demagogue, a corruption scandal has left the Korean government in transition, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un continues to make dangerous noises and destabilize the Korean peninsula when he isn’t busy assassinating his relatives.
But by far the biggest blow to America’s projection of Pacific power has been self-inflicted: Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have established the centrality of the United States in the Pacific region and demonstrated American economic staying power to countries like Vietnam, which increasingly look to the United States as a buffer against China’s assertiveness. Instead, the Chinese are pushing their own version of a regional trade agreement — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — and America’s presence is again being questioned.
Two months into his administration, Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have sent some welcome signals that the United States will remain engaged in Asia. However, the details of the administration’s strategy are hazy, and the president continues to talk about negotiating unspecified, bilateral “deals” that advantage the United States over its allies and enemies alike. If President Barack Obama spent eight years trying — however incompletely — to succeed at an “Asia rebalance,” Trump thus far portends an “Asia unbalance.”
Just as Obama’s efforts to engage the Chinese informally at the Sunnylands estate in California — separate from the highly structured, annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue — were laudable, this week’s Mar-a-Lago personal diplomacy gambit is a smart one. In both American and Chinese culture, to welcome someone into your home as your guest is a sign of great respect. However, the big question at Mar-a-Lago will be: Does the retreat include a comprehensive, strategic approach to Asia, beyond the mere symbolism?
If the administration’s Asia policy is to be anything more than rhetorical at best, here are six steps that should undergird a sound strategy.
1. Combat the growing global perception that the United States is receding in leadership while China is on the rise. Nothing has come to symbolize this stunning turnabout more than climate change. Beijing has been gloating over the contrast between Trump’s retrograde climate polices and China’s reassurance that it will honor the Paris agreement signed by 190 countries. Recognizing that there could be an estimated multi-trillion-dollar market in renewable energy and millions of jobs to go along with it, the Chinese also promised a $350 billion investment in renewable energy over the next decade. The United States should end the uncertainty about its intentions and make it explicit that America is not backing out of its climate commitments and will keep its word — a currency particularly important in Asia.
2. Reassure Southeast Asia about U.S. staying power. Through the first 100 days of the new administration, North Asia has received considerable early attention and diplomatic visits, by necessity. But Southeast Asia — including Vietnam, which has been a bipartisan success story for the United States over decades since it began a policy of engagement, and Myanmar, which has made varying degrees of progress since a policy of isolation ended — is also in need of U.S. attention. It would be a mistake to surrender the field to Beijing — to be perceived as “pivoting away” from countries that will grudgingly but increasingly turn to China, or at least become reluctant to stand up to the Chinese, if they question U.S. commitment to the region.
3. Make the Trump administration’s policies on security in Asia less opaque. Tillerson said that the United States “needs a different approach to North Korea,” and that the “policy of strategic patience has ended.” The details and results of the National Security Council’s review of American North Korea policy will be critical. Putting meat on the bones of secondary sanctions will demonstrate that renewed toughness is more than rhetorical. Notwithstanding U.S. military superiority, North Korea has a greater willingness to accept risk; its mercurial leader, Kim Jong Un, would likely retaliate against any limited strike by imposing costs that would be disproportionately difficult for the United States and its allies in the region to bear. There’s no denying that the key to stability on the Korean peninsula is China, which supplies its neighbor North Korea with oil and has long been all that stands in the way of collapse of the insular and obnoxious regime. Will China — which has again announced willingness to cut off coal imports from North Korea — follow through this time? China’s on-again, off-again approach to sanctioning and degrading the North Korean economy, fearing a refugee crisis or a destabilizing conflict on its border, has always been the wildcard in the equation. Ensuring persistent Chinese pressure on North Korea requires consistent American pressure, along with that of allies in Seoul and Tokyo.
4. Continue to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Although there was a lot of reckless talk during the 2016 campaign — Steve Bannon, now the White House chief strategist, predicted “war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years” — thus far Trump hasn’t actually sent a single U.S. Navy ship to the Spratly islands. The last U.S. naval operation happened in October, on Obama’s watch. At Mar-a-Lago, Trump should adopt the talking points of Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — not Bannon — but he should tell Xi that U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea will be renewed at a time of America’s choosing.
5. Make it clear that human rights remain a central tenet of American foreign policy. Past U.S. administrations have pressed Beijing on human rights without allowing those criticisms to freeze constructive engagement on other issues. Walking away from this position doesn’t give the United States greater harmony with China — it weakens U.S. leverage. Beijing sees America’s retreat on human rights as one less issue with which China must contend: an obstacle removed from the path of increasingly overt aspirations toward global leadership.
America’s values have always been one of its most important and effective exports. To put it in language that Trump the businessman would understand, America’s values are its strongest brand. They are also something that distinguishes the United States from China. When Trump reassured Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that he was going about his controversial fight against drugs “the right way,” even though the Philippine president had encouraged the extra-judicial killings of thousands of his countrymen, it didn’t win the United States leverage or respect — it only confused allies and partners about America’s values.
6. Assemble a strong Asia team, quickly. The departure of career diplomats with Asia credentials from key positions, including State Department Counselor Kristie Kenney and Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel, created a void. The president still has yet to nominate an assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs — and China is the beneficiary of that vacuum.
Personal diplomacy can be important — but it’s no substitute for a strategy. While Trump’s ugly phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dominated the headlines, what’s more worrisome but less attention grabbing is a comment by Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, who called on his government to make China its primary focus of diplomacy and economic policy.
“We are living in a Chinese world,” he said, “But we don’t have a relationship to match it.” The dynamics in Asia are changing. The United States would do well to remember that it is not the only nation capable of a pivot.
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