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The Truth About Trump’s Asia Commitment Problem

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Trans-Pacific View

The Truth About Trump’s Asia Commitment Problem

The issue is far deeper than some are prepared to acknowledge, and addressing it demands far more than reassurance.

The Truth About Trump’s Asia Commitment Problem
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

SINGAPORE – At the Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR) last week in Malaysia and in the runup to the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore this weekend, it has been difficult to have a conversation with Asian thinkers without some reference to anxiety about the U.S. commitment to Asia. As I noted in a preview of SLD 2017, there is great anticipation surrounding U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s speech on Saturday morning and what he will say about Washington’s future direction (See: “What to Expect From the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue”).

Having traversed quite frequently from Washington, D.C. to Asia, it is not uncommon to hear such concerns, even more so these days given the perceived uncertainty on U.S. Asia policy since the election of President Donald Trump last November (See: “The State of Asia’s Security Dialogues”). Yet the search for reassurance on U.S. commitment to the region at this time and in this way is misguided. It vastly understates the structural challenges inherent in sustaining U.S. commitment for any administration and misses the real issues that the Trump team must address to get Asia policy right.

Firstly, the question of U.S. commitment is a persistent one rooted in structural factors beyond the control of a single speech at Asia’s premier security summit or at times even one administration. The real issue with respect to U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific, as I have noted before, is that since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed a dynamic where Asia’s rising importance in the world has not often been matched by its place in U.S. foreign policy, with Washington periodically becoming distracted by concerns in other regions like the Balkans or the Middle East (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”).

This tendency is the product not just of the incompetence or missteps of a single administration, but the difficult balance any president must execute of prioritizing Asia with addressing concerns in other parts of the world as any global superpower does. Judged on this score, if the Bush administration erred by overcommitting the United States to quagmires in the Middle East, there is also merit in the claim that the Obama administration ended up swinging the pendulum too far in the direction of restraint with its focus on Asia. That left vacuums filled by new threats in Europe and the Middle East and emboldened adversaries, from Russia to the Islamic State (See: “US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges”). Mattis no doubt knows this first hand, having served as both NATO Supreme Allied Commander and head of U.S. Central Command and having been a critic of Obama’s Middle East policy.

Second, it is too early to tell how the Trump administration is going to approach this commitment question. For perspective, it is worth remembering that during the Obama years, even though some work was already underway, it was not until the October 2011 – nearly two years after Obama’s inauguration or three Shangri-La Dialogues since he took office – that the U.S. pivot to Asia was publicly rolled out with then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy piece. That was followed by several other important steps, including Obama’s trip to Australia in November where he announced the deployment of 2,500 marines in Darwin.

One also should not forget that the pivot strategy, later termed the rebalance, also came after some concerns in U.S. Asia policy along similar lines we are hearing about now early on in the Trump administration. These included an initially softer line on China with the “strategic reassurance approach” prior to Beijing’s assertiveness; uncertainty with respect to alliances, particularly with Japan with the revolving door of prime ministers before Shinzo Abe took power; and anxiety over the direction of U.S. trade policy under a Democratic president (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”). The point here is not to rehash old debates about Obama’s Asia legacy, but to emphasize that it often takes time for Asia policy to take shape even under a conventional administration with dedicated Asia-firsters.

We are now still less than six months into Trump’s four-year term, and it is this administration’s first Shangri-La Dialogue. And given that most of the senior positions in this rather unconventional administration are still unfilled and that there are lingering questions about its overall domestic and foreign policy as well as the centers of power and how they factor into decisionmaking, it is not surprising that we have not seen full clarity on Asia policy just yet. We have also just started to see the beginning of presidential engagement with important Asian allies and partners, with Japan and Vietnam moving further along but the  Philippines and Singapore still to come (See: “The Real Challenge for US-ASEAN Relations Under Trump”).

Those who want to jump the gun should keep in mind that though naysayers are too quick to write off Trump’s Asia policy based on his campaign rhetoric, early moves, or superficial indicators like his refusal to adopt “the pivot” term, those doomsday predictions have not borne out and the reality has been more mixed. Though Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the questioning of the One China policy, and the travel ban, had all sent anxieties through the region, his announcement that he would attend the next round of Asian summitry later this year and other efforts by his administration to engage key Asian allies and partners have been more reassuring (See: “Why Trump Should Go to APEC and EAS in Vietnam and the Philippines”).

Third and finally, to the extent that uncertainties remain with respect to U.S. commitment to the region under Trump, they are largely not on the Pentagon’s end, which makes the search for reassurance in Mattis’s speech even more curious. In fact, the defense side has arguably witnessed the most continuity of the various aspects of U.S. policy when you look at metrics such as the expansion of U.S. exercises, even though they often go unnoticed (See: “US, Singapore, and Thailand Launch First Trilateral Exercise in the South China Sea”).

Indeed, beyond this point, which Mattis will likely touch on in his speech, Trump’s commitments to a more robust defense budget and to end sequestration, if they are followed through on, could also help alleviate anxieties about U.S. staying power. Though forecasts of U.S. decline are vastly overstated – as they have been nearly once every past decade or two – the fiscal irresponsibility and political dysfunction in Washington have nonetheless fed into perceptions about the unsustainability of America’s long-term military power.

The real issue for Asia policy is how the Trump White House will employ American military power and balance it with other instruments of statecraft with respect to various areas, which are both beyond Mattis’s direct control. As I have noted before, the former will require Trump and his team to keep threat perceptions in check with respect to terrorism, China or North Korea, lest they diminish popular support for the United States or overly restrict the alignment options of policymakers. And the latter will mean building out some of the non-military areas of U.S. policy to avoid further militarization, most clearly on the economic side with the demise of TPP, but also diplomatically with the devastating budget cuts at the State Department, which has supported programs in other areas in Asia that are important but often neglected such as the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).

Given all this, while expecting Mattis’s speech to provide some insight into how U.S. defense policy in the region is shaping up is reasonable, placing the burden on the defense secretary to provide reassurance on the Trump administration’s Asia policy so early on with so many questions left unanswered domestically, regionally, and globally is misplaced. That is a point worth remembering as the headlines begin pouring out over the weekend.