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Elephants in the Room
Trump Needs to Show That He Is Serious About America’s Rivalry With China
The president should use his trip to Asia to reassure allies and assert U.S. power.
President Donald Trump’s upcoming trip to Asia will provide him with an opportunity to outline his emerging strategic approach to the region. The most important task is to reestablish U.S. power and purpose after a series of setbacks — which occurred in spite of former President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” — including significant gains by China in its attempts to control the South China Sea and get Southeast Asia to align with Beijing. The fundamental geopolitical trend is that U.S. competition with China is intensifying.
No objective of the trip is more important than signaling that the United States takes this geopolitical rivalry seriously.
The Trump administration has come to understand that there is no more important ally in the world than Japan, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has played a major role in strengthening ties and developing a good rapport with Trump. It is no secret that Japan had been frustrated with U.S. weakness toward China’s aggressiveness in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and with the policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea as it accelerated its nuclear capabilities. Japan would welcome a more assertive policy and is key to success on all the issues mentioned below. But Trump and Abe have much to discuss to keep the two allies in concert as they work through longer-term strategic issues.
While no one wants to go war on the Korean Peninsula, the two sides need close coordination, should North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decide to use force. Critically, Abe and Trump must explore strategic end states on the peninsula, including the role China might play, and what strategic tradeoffs might be necessary to denuclearize the peninsula.
Trump has a chance to articulate to Asian allies his course on North Korea. His administration conducted a policy review that ended in a declared policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.” The administration is certainly ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea and its Chinese patron. The United States has secured tough U.N. Security Council resolutions that have led to tougher sanctions, which were partly the result of the United States instilling fear in China over the risks Washington appeared to be ready to take to ensure denuclearization. The increase in military cooperation and exercises with South Korea and Japan have bolstered deterrence and warned Beijing about what these alliances are capable of, should North Korea continue on its current course. But the United States has left its partners somewhat perplexed about what “engagement” means in this context, and how it can rule out regime change if all options are indeed on the table.
Trump will have an important platform to address these issues with a speech at the South Korean National Assembly. He should reassure allies of America’s intent to protect them and lay out a vision for the peninsula’s future.
Trump is set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who — in the manner of a contemporary Mao Zedong — has consolidated his power and empire, which now includes territory from inside India to the South and East China Seas.
Trump should be equipped with the knowledge that the Communist Party of China regards the United States as a geopolitical rival standing in the way of Xi’s program of “national rejuvenation.” Chinese officials will fete Trump and tell him that Chinese and American interests align. But every aspect of the trip, from the Chinese perspective, will be arranged to demonstrate that the U.S. leader is coming as a supplicant to China after Xi’s great political triumph within his party. Xi’s propaganda and political warfare organs will be working overtime to convey to the region that Trump is there to pay his respects to the Chinese imperium.
Besides atmospherics, the only real business that the two men have to discuss is North Korea. Trump should disregard the idea that China is there to help. Rather, the question is whether the two countries have scope for diplomacy over how best to achieve the reunification of the Korean Peninsula without Kim. This type of diplomacy can only occur once China genuinely feels that North Korea is a liability, with economic and military costs for Beijing. Trump’s goal in China should be to demonstrate to Xi how serious the United States is about removing the North Korea threat.
Trump’s visits to Vietnam and the Philippines may be the most critical stops on the trip. It may be too late to reverse China’s gains through island building and militarization of the South China Sea, but it is not too late to build support for a coalition that checks China’s ultimate hegemonic ambitions.
The administration has been rolling out a new Indo-Pacific grand strategy in line with what Abe has been articulating for several years. The concept is built around a strategic triangle between Japan, India, and the United states as a counter to China’s military and economic strategies. It is likely that Australia will also want to be part of this arrangement, as the four countries will be meeting to resurrect a quad of the major democratic maritime powers at the East Asia Summit on Nov. 13 and 14.
All the relevant countries will also gather for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Vietnam. The Trump administration should probe its Southeast Asian partners on their willingness to participate in an arrangement that knits together the allies and partners. This will be no easy task given longstanding questions about U.S. staying power and enormous pressure from China to forego any type of coalition. Further, the Trump administration has not yet articulated an economic and trade agenda around which these countries can coalesce after America’s bipartisan failure to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The meeting in the Philippines with President Rodrigo Duterte will begin to reveal whether the allies can repair relations hurt by U.S. passivity toward Chinese encroachments on Scarborough Shoal and relative silence after Manila won handily its case against China’s maritime claims in international arbitration. These failures, which left the Philippines feeling abandoned, as well as Duterte’s heated anti-American rhetoric, have put the alliance in a tailspin. Washington has made its way back into Manila’s good graces by supporting its fight against Islamic State-allied militants. It will be up to Trump to build back relations with Duterte and explore how much further security cooperation can be expanded.
All of this is set to take place even as a U.S. strategy-resource gap is reaching crisis proportions. The mass cutting of the military budget over the past eight years and the even longer procurement and modernization holiday mean that the military is asked to do more and more with less and less. No amount of summitry can paper over that stark reality. Ultimately, it is up to the U.S. Congress and the president to fix a broken system at home — that is the only way to provide Asian allies with reassurance about U.S. staying power.
The planned presidential trip is long and substantial. Success will be conditioned on how well Trump reassures Japan and South Korea about the U.S. strategy for North Korea, and if Trump puts flesh on the bones of the free Indo-Pacific strategy — an approach that will require the building of a liberal, free-market order with open maritime commons from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, undergirded by the reassertion of American power.
This would require a more consistent and robust presence, a trade and free-market agenda, and the networking of allies and partners within this critical maritime zone. All of this is too much to accomplish in one trip. But the administration should begin to articulate its preferred approach and explore among allies and partners the appetite to participate.