What will President-elect Donald Trump’s defense policy in Asia look like? The short answer is: We simply don’t know. Should he indeed embrace an isolationist stance of non-involvement in Asian conflicts and non-entanglement in Asian affairs, we may see an increase in regional tensions in the near future fueled by South Korean and Japanese nuclear armament, Chinese militarization of the South and East China Seas, a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the possible collapse of Pakistan, and the continuous spread of Islamic extremism in the region, to name a few.
The more likely course of U.S. defense policy in Asia under President Trump, however, will be a variation of the old dictum of “peace through strength,” predicated upon a buildup of U.S. military power in the region, perhaps based on some variant of the of the so-called concept of offshore balancing, i.e. the use of regional allies to manage the rise of great powers, while relying on a large (offshore) U.S. naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region to deter agression. (It should be noted, though, that most political scientists think that Asian regional powers will not be able to manage China’s rise in the region without substantial U.S. backing.) Where is this idea coming from?
Two of Donald Trump’s policy advisers (one of whom was an aide to the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Randy Forbes) laid out this case in a Foreign Policy article this week, albeit without going into many details. Nevertheless, one thing appears to be clear: The pivot of Donald Trump’s U.S. defense policy in Asia will be the U.S. Navy. “The U.S. Navy is perhaps the greatest source of regional stability in Asia,” the authors write. In the article, Trump’s advisers advocate for a massive U.S. naval buildup in the region. (Randy Forbes, who lost the primary race to retain his congressional seat earler this year, has been an avid supporter of U.S. naval buildup and modernization to check Chinese ambitions. Could he be a canidate for U.S. secretary of the navy?)
The U.S. Navy currently operates 274 ships – the largest and most powerful naval force in the world – structured around its 10 aircraft carrier strike groups. The number of deployable warships will increase to 308 in the years ahead, according to the latest U.S. Navy shipbuilding plan. However, these numbers do not satisfy Trump’s advisers. Trump’s goal “is 350 ships, a fleet in line with the up to 346 ships endorsed by the bipartisan National Defense Panel,” they write. According to the authors, it was the small size of the U.S. Navy that doomed the so-called U.S. rebalance to Asia strategy first announced in 2011.
“Initially, [the rebalance] would mostly feature token gestures of American diplomatic and military support, for example, sending littoral combat ships to Singapore and 2,500 Marines to Darwin, Australia. However, over time, the administration would drastically cut the U.S. military — particularly by shrinking a U.S. Navy expected to be the tip of the pivot spear,” the authors write. From the outset, the rebalance strategy contained a heavy military component — by 2020 60 percent of U.S. naval forces are slated to be homeported in the Pacific, among other things — next to its diplomatic and economic aspects.
Judging from the Foreign Policy article, it appears that Donald Trump’s defense policy in Asia will be first and foremost built around affirming the United States’ ability to deliver on its defense commitments in the region, with the U.S. Navy as Trump’s offshore messenger. To be fair, for some time there has been a simmering feeling among some Asian allies and U.S. policymakers, whether true or not, that the U.S. rebalance to Asia strategy — particulary its miliary component — was only halfheartedly executed under the presidency of Barack Obama.
Trump, unless he yields to isolationist impulses, is likely to continue this strategy in principle, (over)emphasizing its military component. The president-elect will first and foremost have to find a means to reinvigorate the Asia rebalance to combat the perception that the Obama administration had over-promised and under-delivered on the strategy. U.S. defense policy in Asia in the next four years — save for black swans that could include the new president’s unpredictable temperament — will with a large degree of certainty be heavily influenced by this rebalance strategy in one aspect or the other (although to this date no official U.S. government document exists to explain this strategy and all its diffuse elements — and that’s without accounting for Donald Trump’s contradictory foreign policy statements in general).
It is likely that the overarching de-facto theme for U.S. defense policy in Asia, influenced by an updated rebalance strategy, will be containment in particular when it comes to two Asian nations. On the one hand, the United States will try to contain North Korean nuclear aggression by threatening massive military retaliation in the event of war in combination with quiet diplomatic efforts. On the other hand, Washington will attempt to influence China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in a U.S.-led rule-based world order through subtle containment. (21st century containment differs from the United States’ Cold War containment strategy, since Washington, no matter what administration is in charge, has a vested interest in a prosperous and strong China.)
Consequently, checking Chinese and North Korean military expansion will be the most important task of U.S. defense policy in Asia in the next four years. (Containing Islamic extremism and continuing to support the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban insurgency will remain important for a Trump White House, but — again, save the occurrence of black swans — will not have as big of an impact on U.S. defense policy as China and North Korea, in my opinion, although he pledged during his campaign that he will emphasize counterterrorism efforts.) Consequently, U.S. defense policy in Asia will be built around merging offshore balancing with a de-facto China and North Korean containment strategy.
In concrete terms this means, a Trump White House could push for an increase in U.S. naval activity in the South China Sea, including patrols challenging “excessive maritime claims” as part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs); a more rigorous push for ballistic missile defense including the deployment of additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems in the region, notably South Korea; improving military cooperation with critical U.S. allies such as Japan by, for example, establishing a U.S.-Japanese Joint Operations Command (which also sends a strong political message to Beijing and Pyongyang); the maintenance and possible expansion of the U.S. drone strike program in Pakistan; and the sale of U.S. submarines to Taiwan, to name a few. At the same time, the U.S. Navy will continue and step up its participation in bilateral and multilateral military exercises such as COBRA Gold and the Malabar Exercise Series with key allies.
Furthermore, we can expect a concerted effort to build up underfunded navies of U.S. allies and partners in Southeast Asia; a large increase in the U.S. surface fleet presence in the region (perhaps by permanently deploying an additional carrier strike group or amphibious ready group to the region); an increase of U.S. deterrence aerial patrols near the North Korean border, closer naval cooperation with India in the Indian Ocean and support in building up Indian naval capacity (e.g., helping design and build the country’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier); the dispatch of additional counterterrorism and counter-insurgency advisers to Pakistan; and a more rigorous push toward developing norms and rules of the road for military operations in cyberspace with allies and partners, among a host of other issues. The United States could also offer technical advice to Japan and South Korea on the development of nuclear weapons — admittedly a far-fetched scenario.
While under a Clinton White House all of this would likely be accompanied by concerted diplomatic efforts, the Trump administration has not made any mention of specific diplomatic efforts in support of its Reaganesque “peace through strength” Asia-Pacific defense strategy. For example, in order to assuage fears of the U.S. naval buildup in the region, an attempt would have to be made to deepen U.S.-China dialogues on a host of issues including North Korea, cybersecurity, maritime disputes, and the nuclear and space arms races. President Trump would also need to push for better crisis management mechanisms in order to more easily defuse future conflict. More rigorous engagement with China, including continuing Chinese military participation in joint drills such as RIMPAC and various other confidence-building measures including cyber tabletop exercises, would also be required — an unlikely proposition under Trump.
In the end, Donald Trump’s defense policy in Asia — should he listen to his advisors — will likely be an extension of the rebalance strategy as outlined in 2011, accentuating, however, the military aspect of it — particularly building up the U.S. Navy in the region. Then again, we have to admit that there remain too many known unknowns to make an accurate prediction of Trump’s future defense policy in Asia — and that, to use one of Trump’s favorite words, is a “huge” problem.