Elephants in the Room
Asia Awaits Trump’s Visit With Trepidation
U.S. allies are worried about American drift and Chinese expansion.
As Asian governments await the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump, who departs next week on his first visit to the region as president, they see some signs of strength in the United States, but also worrisome indications of American drift and Chinese expansion.
On the positive side, close U.S. allies privately express greater confidence in the national security team of H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, and John Kelly than they did in the outgoing team of Susan Rice and John Kerry, who were seen as lecturing to allies and accommodating to China. There is also a sense of relief (except perhaps in Beijing) that Trump has not followed through on his more extreme campaign promises to abandon allies who didn’t pay their fair share for defense or his earlier flirtation with a U.S.-China condominium around North Korea. The fact that Trump will spend over a week traveling from Japan to South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines is itself a reassuring indication of continued U.S. commitment to the region.
On the negative side, U.S. partners are growing alarmed that the president’s hostility to trade agreements may be as intense in practice as it was in campaign rhetoric. The U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was probably the greatest self-inflicted wound on American regional influence since the Vietnam War. Asian business leaders have confidence in the American economy, and investment from Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia into the United States is robust. But the United States has ceded leadership on regional economic rule-making, and China is grabbing the helm. Meanwhile, the administration’s continuous swinging of the sword of Damocles over the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement at a time of growing danger on the Korean Peninsula undermines all the professions of alliance solidarity with Seoul coming from the Trump national security team.
Ironically, the unmistakable hubris emanating from the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in Beijing this week might help Trump. At the conference, 2,300 sycophantic cadres unanimously enshrined “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” in the constitution and confirmed Xi as the “party center” — cult of personality trappings not seen since Deng Xiaoping. In his three-hour speech to the delegates, Xi trumpeted China’s “great power” status and promised military modernization — because the Chinese military “must be ready to fight wars.” Where the Trump administration has retreated from trade, Xi promised to lead with China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative for Asia. Countries from Southeast Asia to the Middle East have signed on to participate, and while the details of China’s largesse remain somewhat vague, the conditions are becoming increasingly real and somewhat alarming. Unlike the huge grants provided by the U.S. Marshall Plan for Europe, the Belt and Road Initiative involves loans that must be repaid, with strict conditions from Beijing requiring that all construction and support services be provided by Chinese firms rather than local workers. Thailand and other governments tried to resist these conditions but were uninvited to the summit launching the initiative until they conceded, which Thailand eventually did. The “belt” part of the initiative would link dual-use infrastructure across maritime Asia in a series of ports that would support Chinese Navy power projection and potentially complicate Indian, U.S., and Japanese transit of the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, authorities in Australia, Singapore, and elsewhere are waking up to Chinese activities designed to blunt criticism of China across Asia. In Australia, the government has begun addressing evidence that Chinese corporations donated funds to Australian political candidates on behalf of Beijing, while Singapore’s ruling party is trying to understand how associations of Chinese descendants were quietly taken over by recent Chinese immigrants parroting Beijing’s official line. Intelligence officials in the region are also speculating about possible Chinese influence on the recent New Zealand election, which yielded a Labour-led government critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which an earlier New Zealand Labour government had launched). Similar episodes are multiplying across the region.
The number of smaller countries buckling under China’s pressure is discouraging, but the major powers are mustering in response. Japan, India, and Australia are increasingly aligning their strategies as maritime democracies. Vietnam has defied China for over 2,000 years and is holding steady. Indonesia is too huge and confused to fall under China’s sway. Recognizing these dynamics, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this month, a theme that Trump will likely amplify in his own prepared remarks in the region. That Mahanian maritime strategy has enormous merit and highlights one American advantage in Asia, which is the natural counterbalancing against China’s expansion by major U.S. allies and partners in the region. However, the strategy also raises the question of how a free and open Indo-Pacific will be maintained in peacetime without a U.S. commitment to free and open trade rules.
The maritime framing also leaves South Korea in an awkward position. Polls show that South Koreans are alarmed at Chinese bullying, including Beijing’s boycott against South Korean companies in response to Seoul’s acceptance of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles, but Seoul is also more reticent than Japan, Australia, or India to be trapped in a confrontation with China (the Yalu River offers much less of a buffer than the East China Sea, the Coral Sea, or the Himalayas). Trump’s relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in remains awkward. The South Koreans have offered a rare state visit but are anxious about what the U.S. president might say about North Korea, particularly in unscripted tweets while on the road. The administration’s expression of readiness to use military options, including preempting North Korean nuclear weapons use — is absolutely necessary. However, the president’s assertion that the United States is ready for preventive war should diplomacy fail has not convinced Beijing and has alarmed Seoul. South Korea may be the most important swing state in all of Asia, and Trump cannot afford to get it wrong.
Previous populist presidents, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, developed their real Asia strategy only after seeing how their campaign rhetoric looked to leaders in the region. As a general rule, Trump does not get high marks for listening, but that will be the most important part of his visit to the region.