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The Ticking Clock on Trump’s Asia Strategy

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Trans-Pacific View

The Ticking Clock on Trump’s Asia Strategy

The administration needs to unveil a more comprehensive approach to the region soon.

The Ticking Clock on Trump’s Asia Strategy
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Given that we are just over six months into U.S. President Donald Trump’s rather unconventional administration with so many lingering questions left about its overall domestic and foreign policy, it might seem premature to expect an Asia strategy to emerge so early on, as I pointed out previously (See: “The Truth About Trump’s Asia Commitment Problem”).

But as crises in Asia and around the world – from a nuclear North Korea to a resurgent Russia – continue to heat up and as we approach the first round of regional summits that Trump has committed to attending later this year, it is also true that the clock is ticking for the administration to clearly lay out where Asia lies within its broader foreign policy as well as how it intends to approach it.

Contrary to the doomsday scenarios some had painted at the outset, the reality of Trump’s Asia policy has been more mixed so far. Though his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and unstable management of the U.S.-China relationship had caused anxiety in the region, other moves – from his early announcement to attend what will be his first round of Asian summitry to the quick engagement of key Asian allies and partners – have been welcomed (See: “Trump’s Big Asia Summit Month”).

Trump’s able national security team has inspired confidence, and some of his priorities, like boosting the defense budget, could add real heft to U.S. Asia policy if followed through (See: “What Mattis’ Shangri-La Dialogue Speech Revealed About Trump’s Asia Policy”).

But the real problem is that beyond these individual developments, Asian observers are still left wondering what, if anything, all these actions add up to, and how long it will take for the administration’s approach to cohere.

This anxiety is not without basis and pre-dates Trump. Over the decades, there has been a structural problem in U.S. Asia policy. Even though American ends since the end of World War II in Asia have remained consistent (preventing rival hegemons from dominating Asia and promoting greater security, prosperity, and democracy) and U.S. means have consisted of a similar mix of tools (military power, alliances and partnerships, economic engagement, regional institutions, and U.S. ideals), multiple administrations have struggled to keep the focus on comprehensively engaging Asia in the face of individual threats within the region as well as extraregional distractions in other parts of the world (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).

For all its faults, the Obama administration was aware of this problem and was clear from the start about both the central role that Asia would play in its foreign policy as well as its general tendencies and preferences, from its willingness to engage America’s adversaries to the commitment to multilateralism (See: “US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges”).

For the Trump administration, by contrast, despite some promise, finding its footing on foreign policy has proven difficult given a number of unique realities it faces, including the long list of unfilled senior positions, the lack of coherence in messaging, and uncertainty about the various centers of power and how they factor into decisionmaking. And though Trump’s team had predictably distanced itself from the “rebalance” term, consistent with a new administration’s desire to rebrand major foreign policy initiatives, this has yet to be replaced with anything.

As a result, right now, despite successes in some areas, the administration’s Asia policy as a whole looks unbalanced, unconnected, and unstable. Though defense policy has witnessed significant continuity, uncertainty remains in other nonmilitary areas with the demise of TPP and proposed budget cuts at the State Department, thereby feeding into a perception of militarization. Despite the impressive pace of summit meetings with Asian leaders, in some cases it is not clear what the administration’s vision is for these alliances and partnerships beyond addressing individual grievances as well as particular threats consistent with the America First vision, be it North Korea or the Islamic State. And as kinetic actions continue to be taken in other regions of the world, some fear that Washington is just one misstep away from being engulfed in another quagmire that could once again take its focus away from Asia.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick in the absence of an Asia strategy. As the number of crises heat up – from North Korea to Afghanistan – the temptation to manage individual challenges rather than adopting a holistic approach, which every administration struggles with, will only increase. And the closer that the Trump administration gets to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings toward the end of the year, the louder the calls will be for clarity on what kind of approach the United States is adopting in Asia (See: “Why Trump Should Go To APEC and EAS in Vietnam and the Philippines”). The longer the wait is for a coherent Asia strategy, the greater the level of concern about the United States’ current role as well as its future position relative to a rising and increasingly capable China.

Though outlining a strategy is obviously no panacea, it can help. Laying out a clear conception of the ends and means the administration intends to pursue in the region can help it improve message discipline and get a clear sense of its priorities both regionally as well as globally before it becomes overwhelmed by crises. It can also counter existing critiques, no matter how unfounded, that Trump’s Asia policy is characterized by either narrow transactionalism or constant see-sawing. Lastly, it can provide greater certainty among U.S. allies and partners that the administration is thinking about building out a broader approach to the region over time, easing their anxiety about the sustainability of the American presence and preempting potential hedging tendencies away from Washington.

Of course, the process of unveiling such a vision is much more difficult than observers often appreciate, and it often takes a while. Critics often forget that it took two years for the Obama administration to publicly roll out its rebalance strategy, even with a strong Asia team and without some of the unique challenges that confront the Trump administration.

However, it is also true that, for all the obsessing over how dead the pivot really is, there tends to be significant continuity in the broad contours of U.S. Asia strategy, and it had already pretty clear to close observers of U.S. Asia strategy what the main tenets of the administration’s strategy are likely to be, or at the very least what they should be (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”). A general initial strategy or approach can also be laid out with a view to adapt it over time, as has tended to be the case in previous administrations as well.

I myself have outlined what ought to be a set of metrics for the administration’s regional approach. If the Trump administration wants to demonstrate that, in spite of its America First vision, it still intends to preserve the U.S. role as a capable and willing Pacific power seeking to advance security, prosperity, and democracy in Asia, it needs to do five things: maintain the focus on Asia; rebuild the foundations of U.S. power; find a healthy balance between engagement and balancing on China policy; keep threat perceptions in check; and ensure that democracy and human rights remain on the agenda (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).

But there is no shortage of recommendations for the Trump administration in terms of what its Asia strategy should be. What we really lack, and what Asia wants to know, is the administration’s own comprehensive vision for the region and how that fits into its broader foreign policy as senior positions are filled over the next few months. We need that soon, because the clock is ticking.