Trans-Pacific View

Trump’s Bilateralism and US Power in East Asia

How best to make sense of the Trump administration’s preference for bilateralism in Asia?

Trump’s Bilateralism and US Power in East Asia
Credit: Donald Trump Moon Jae-in summit 2017 via Cheong Wa Dae

How should we interpret Trump’s foreign policy approach to East Asia and what does it mean for the region’s states? It is arguable that Trump’s foreign policy is best understood as a form of cost-benefits bilateralism, expressing deep scepticism towards perceived encumbering regimes that tie down or place burdens on American freedom of action. Instead, of building or leading new regimes it prefers to deal with other powers on a bilateral cost-benefit basis, according to how relationships work in America’s perceived economic or political interests. The “world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage” argued HR McMaster, White house national security adviser and Gary Cohn, Trump’s senior economic adviser, “rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” It is this bilateralism that helps explain Trump’s startling abrogation of the East Asian Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) earlier this year. “The president made a decision … that bilateral negotiations are better for the United States than multilateral negotiations” argued U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer.

However, this aversion to multilateralism and regional regimes in East Asia fundamentally misunderstands some core and longstanding elements of American power. As we have argued in a recent article in the journal International Affairs, in addition to its direct relations with states as the primary security guarantor and trading partner for a number of East Asian states, the U.S. has long enjoyed immense structural power: the power to shape the international preferences of politically equal but security subordinate states. The TPP is instructive in this sense. Rather than a regime that tied the United States down, the TPP sought to bind economically powerful states in a crucial region of the global economy into a U.S.-led regime that reflected the United States’ own economic and geopolitical interests. By doing so, the United States could further corral regional states deeper into an American centric regional order and by its leadership help set the rules and structures through which other states interacted. In short, the TPP was about security and regional leadership just as much as economics, as was duly noted prior to Trump’s rejection of the TPP.  Delivering his first address as Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, argued that the TPP negotiations go “far beyond just economic benefits. It is also about our security. Long-term, its strategic value is awesome. We should never forget that.” Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and arch rival to Trump argued that  the Asian and European economies are the “linchpins of the global economy and international relations” in an “economically interdependent” world dependent on American power projection capacity the “strategic turn to the region fits logically into our overall global effort to secure and sustain America’s global leadership.”

As economic power shifts to East Asia, the TPP, if successful, would have helped institutionally ‘lock in’ both U.S. economic preferences and its broader regional leadership. Whilst the United States is still the world’s leading economy according to a range of important metrics, this may not be the case in thirty years time and as the United Nations Security Council serves to remind us, institutions help lock-in the distributions of power present at the time of their creation. If the United States is indeed in relative decline, what better opportunity to protect itself than creating institutions today that will help protect its interests tomorrow? Trump’s bilateral bargaining power may be strong today, but will it always be so?

Perhaps most importantly, Trump’s bilateralism sends discouraging signals to its regional allies at the same time as encouraging potential alliances and institution building from its main regional hegemonic rival: China. Specifically, whilst China does not seem to seek major revisions to the global economic system, its regional aspirations are nonetheless clear and Trump’s questionable commitment have only added to growing Chinese confidence and capacity to build nascent Sino-centric institutions such as it ‘One Belt-One Road’ initiative. China’s aspirations also extend beyond immediate East Asian neighbors, inviting major non-Asian U.S. allies to join its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Britain gave the U.S. 24 hours notice of its intent to join in 2015, and opened the door to other major powers such as Australia and South Korea: a “major affront” to the United States which perceived the AIIB as a rival to the World Bank. Moreover, in the face of Trump’s seeming abandonment of further globalization, Chinese President Xi Jingping stated that whilst some “people blame economic globalization for the chaos in our world” we “should not retreat into the harbor whenever we encounter a storm or we will never reach the other shore… No one will emerge as a winner from a trade war.” In essence, Xi was staking a claim for a greater Chinese role in economic globalization.

In sum, U.S. structural power in East Asia has long involved a close synergy between economics and geopolitics. Trump’s new bilateralism is a signal that the U.S. is no longer interested in building wide-ranging regional regimes, and its allies in East Asia must now try and manage the delicate balance between their national interests, a rising China, and a United States increasingly wary of broader regional leadership. If East Asia is the hub of the 21st Century, Trump’s bilateralism and abdication of institutional leadership may well hasten rather than stem its relative decline. Trump’s abandonment of TPP, and its regional leadership in East Asia more generally, is thus more than the abrogation of a free trade regime. It was a potentially short-sighted move based upon a preference for bilateral deals at the expense of its longer term interests and longstanding structural power.

Doug Stokes is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for Advanced International Studies at the University of Exeter. Kit Waterman is an Economic and Social Research Council-funded doctoral candidate based at the Strategy and Security Institute of the University of Exeter. Their recent article in International Affairs is titled ‘Security leverage, structural power and U.S. strategy in east Asia’. It is available here.