WASHINGTON, D.C. –One of the highlights of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural five-country Asia voyage next week will be a much-anticipated address on his administration’s approach to what officials have termed a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Though such an articulation makes sense and ought to be welcomed, the administration’s challenge will lie less in how it makes that case than in how it will follow that up concretely and align that regional vision with broader domestic and wider global considerations in the coming months.
As I have argued before, it is important for a new U.S. administration to begin to articulate its commitment and approach to Asia early on (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”). New administrations create anxiety in Asia about the sustainability and shape of U.S. commitment, and understandably so –in the post-Cold War era, we have witnessed a dynamic where Asia’s rising importance to the world has at times not been matched by its place in U.S. foreign policy, with Washington periodically becoming distracted by concerns either domestically or in other regions from the Balkans to the Middle East. At its broadest level, Obama’s “rebalance” was an attempt to correct this tendency.
In the Trump’s administration’s case, the argument for urgently advancing an Asia approach was an even more convincing one (See: “The Ticking Clock on Trump’s Asia Strategy”). The nativism and narrow transactionalism in Trump’s “America First” vision raised concerns that his inauguration could mark the end of an “Asia First” foreign policy. And with promising signs – such as the quick engagement of key Asian partners and an early announcement of Trump’s first Asia trip – accompanied by worrying acts like the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the key question for the region was if and when all this would cohere. Some sort of rebranding of the “rebalance” was expected under a new administration, and Trump’s planned articulation of the broad outline of his administration’s vision in the region will at least begin to answer the question of what that might look like.
But while this early articulation makes sense and ought to be welcomed, with so many questions left unanswered about the administration’s overall approach both at home and abroad, and with a long list of unfilled senior positions still remaining, deep uncertainty will remain in Asia about how this rhetoric will be translated to reality. The administration’s challenge, therefore, will lie less in how Trump makes that case for a free and open Indo-Pacific while out in the region and more in how it will follow that up concretely and align that regional vision with broader domestic and wider global considerations in the coming months with respect to three pillars – security, economics, and democracy and human rights.
The Indo-Pacific conception in and of itself has long made sense to frame America’s broader commitment to Asia. Since the end of World War II, the United States has helped build and lead a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific to advance peace, prosperity, and freedom. The region now boasts the world’s three largest economies, seven of its eight fastest growing markets, and seven of the world’s ten largest armies, and it is expected to produce more than half of the world’s economic output in the coming years. Yet the rules-based order is under increasing strain today, and its future holds both opportunities as well as challenges. Trump will no doubt expand on this mixed picture and what the United States’ role ought to be in it.
Yet what the region will be wondering about is how the Trump administration will situate this regional view within its broader domestic and foreign policy and then translate that into reality, both in general as well as the three pillars that usually define how America’s role is articulated – security, economics, and democracy and human rights. Generally, the question centers on how the administration reconciles its articulation of a rules-based order, which is based on a more interdependent conception of how nations interact in Asia and the world, with Trump’s own “America First” tendencies, which rest on a more independent vision. As Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month illustrated, there is still a tension between the traditional post-WWII conception of the United States as a custodian of an interconnected international order with Trump’s world of what he called “strong, sovereign states.”
Then there are the three more specific realms to consider. On the security side, several members of the Trump team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, have already been framing the administration’s narrative in this free and open Indo-Pacific. That vision holds that the administration, together with a network of allies and partners, will focus not just on individual threats like terrorism or North Korea, but the broader challenge that authoritarian states, chiefly China, pose to the rules-based international order such as in the South China Sea.
While several key like-minded Indo-Pacific would no doubt share this broad framing, what they will be looking to see is how the United States actually sequences these threats and calibrates its responses to them in concert with allies, partners, and friends. Already, there have been worries among some Asian observers that an unnecessary war of words with Kim Jong-un could heighten the risk of miscalculation, a tougher China policy may heighten U.S.-China tensions and complicate alignments of smaller states with either or both powers, and moves like the reopening of the Iran deal may lead the United States to once again become consumed by the Middle East at Asia’s expense.
On economics, too, the broad case for freedom and openness in the Indo-Pacific and Washington’s role in it is both clear and well-understood. There is no doubt a shared general interest by like-minded counties, including Japan, India, and Australia, to ensure that the Indo-Pacific continues to be a place of growing and shared prosperity by advancing trade and investment. There is also an ongoing debate about the exact shape of this and what the standards ought to be, and the U.S. role, broadly framed, is focused on raising these standards to a higher level relative to the “predatory economics” that other actors like China are trying to advance, as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it in a speech earlier this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But what the region wonders now is how this broader, strategic message for the region can be reconciled with the narrow, transactional approach that we have seen Trump himself advocate domestically. Thus far, the jettisoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, threatened withdrawals from other agreements including KORUS, and hawkishness on bilateral trade deficits have all given rise to the perception that this administration views economics more as an area to manage challenges in the United States’ favor rather than to advance opportunities for mutual gain (See: “What Trump’s TPP Withdrawal Means for US Asia Policy”).
Administration officials have contended that negotiating a string of bilateral deals could eventually pave the way for some sort of regional vision. But these deals are not easy to forge. And in the meantime, the lack of alternatives offered by Washington makes lower standard deals like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and questionable China-led schemes like the One Belt One Road (OBOR) more attractive (See: “The Real Trouble With China’s Belt and Road”). Though Trump officials may continue to rail against Beijing’s initiatives, what Asian countries want from the United States is more choices rather than just more complaints.
Lastly, any discussion of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based order would be incomplete without addressing a third traditional leg of this stool – democracy and human rights. While every administration struggles to balance the longstanding U.S. commitment to ideals with its enduring interests, signs of creeping authoritarianism from the president himself and doubts about the role of certain agencies has obscured the clarity of messaging on this front. When there has been some mention of this, the message has sounded rather grating. For instance, Trump’s selective characterization of “rogue regimes” in his UN speech immediately triggered anxiety among those who have grown wary of Manichean visions out of Washington and their adverse implications, with George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” formulation being a case in point.
Yet advancing a calm, clear, and consistent position on rights over the next few months will be critical for the administration. Contrary to simplistic notions that advancing democracy and human rights will lead the United States to “lose” countries to China, most Asian states have long recognized the reality that that some sort of balancing of ideals and interests is necessary for U.S. policymakers, and their concern lies with the way in which this is done. And if the administration fails to articulate a position soon, it will only open the door to other actors within the U.S. foreign policymaking process, like Congress, exerting limits on the development of these relationships, particularly with key elections in Asian states like Malaysia and Cambodia coming up in 2018 that could see historic transitions or contested outcomes.
The process of unveiling a strategic regional vision is a much more difficult one for U.S. policymakers than most outside observers often appreciate, and the Trump administration deserves credit for beginning to do so despite the unique challenges it confronts. But the true challenge once that vision is unveiled will be quickly translating that rhetoric into reality in the months that follow.
Prashanth Parameswaran is Associate Editor at The Diplomat Magazine based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.