U.S. President Donald Trump’s five-nation tour of Asia in November 2017 marks the inception of America’s post-pivot strategy. Through summitry and speeches, Trump set forth his broad vision for preserving peace and prosperity across a vast yet dynamic region critical to the U.S. national interest.
It was in Da Nang, the fourth stop on the trip, where Trump outlined the administration’s overall Asian policy in his address to CEOs. Offering a general set of principles and interests that will be fleshed out over the coming years, Trump sketched out his “Indo-Pacific dream” — something clearly intended as an alternative to Xi Jinping’s “China dream” and Belt and Road Initiative.
In so many respects, U.S. policy remains moored deeply in history. Indeed, the president began his speech by observing how the United States has been engaged in commerce, freedom of navigation, and security in this region since American independence.
Paying homage to the rise of Asia, Trump enumerated some of the recent achievements of specific countries. He praised an opening Vietnam and an Indonesia that is one of the fastest growing G20 economies. He highlighted Thailand’s ascent into the group of upper middle-income countries in less than a generation, and Malaysia as “one of the best places in the world to do business.” Trump noted how Singapore had been transformed by “honest governance” and how the Philippines was a leader in Asia in closing the gender gap. He credited China’s market reforms with lifting 800 million people out of poverty. Finally, he reserved special tribute for three of the wealthiest Asian democracies: South Korea, Japan, and India.
While rooted in history and focused on Asia’s dynamism, the main thrust of Trump’s vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was forward looking. He said America was not seeking domination but rather partnership with strong, independent nations willing to play by the rules. “It is in America’s interests,” said the president, hinting at regional concern about the assertiveness of an increasingly powerful China, “to have partners throughout this region that are thriving, prosperous, and dependent on no one.”
While the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” was popularized by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe more than a decade ago, Trump has borrowed the words to rally like-minded countries to band together to uphold principles of reciprocity, as well as economic and military security. The phrase — and the absence of a simple catchword — was also deliberately chosen by the White House to underscore a high degree of policy continuity, rather than a sudden “pivot” in which the United States might rebalance today but withdraw tomorrow.
Casting aside the measured tones and diplomatic phrases used in Japan, South Korea, and China, however, the president reminded the world how his leadership departs from his predecessors on both sides of the aisle. He said the “current trade imbalance is not acceptable,” and that, “from this day forward, we will compete on a fair and equal basis.” Trump said the United States would not stand idly by when other nations are “engaged in product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation, and predatory industrial policies.” Washington will “no longer tolerate the audacious theft of intellectual property” or “remain silent as American companies are targeted by state-affiliated actors for economic gain.” If the Indo-Pacific dream is going to be realized, Trump concluded, “we must ensure that all play by the rules.”
Reflecting his priority on trade and investment, Trump observed that “economic security is national security.” But having withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the president sought to focus on high-standard trade and investment and finance free from dangerous entanglements. In addition to pushing international financial institutions to “direct their efforts toward high-quality infrastructure investment that promotes economic growth,” Trump announced his intention to “provide alternatives to state-directed initiatives that come with many strings attached.”
At the same time, he called for international cooperation in supporting both traditional and non-traditional security. Echoing his speech about the Korean Peninsula to the National Assembly in Seoul, Trump said, “The future of this region … must not be held hostage to a dictator’s twisted fantasies of violent conquest and nuclear blackmail.” He further called on all nations to uphold “the rule of law, individual rights, and freedom of navigation and overflight.” He emphasized that “We must stop radical Islamic terrorism,” as well as other transnational threats.
In contrast to Xi’s call for realizing a “China dream” in which China is at the center of the global stage by the middle of the century, Trump envisioned a world of strong, independent sovereign states hewing to common rules and working to address a multitude of security problems. “We will be blessed with a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, thriving in peace and commerce with others,” the president said. Rather than tied to one road, Trump added, “let us never forget the world has many places, many dreams, and many roads.”
Once upon a time Republican administrations used to talk about multilateral trade and bilateral security. In some ways, the Trump administration’s major deviation from past policy is by moving away from decades of bipartisan support for multilateral trade agreements, in favor of bilateral partnerships. Beyond that admittedly significant difference, there is a great deal of continuity but also some relative but not profound divergences. Let me assess three of them: allies and partners, trade and economic growth, and the strategic center of gravity for the policy.
For instance, Trump doubles down on allies and partners as vital for the successful achievement of stability and economic growth. But there were times when some members of the Obama administration tended to treat alliances as ends in themselves; the Trump administration clearly sees alliances as means for achieving common ends. Among other things, Trump wants allies and partners to provide greater public goods, but he also said in Da Nang that partners will be penalized if they fail to abide by reciprocity and fair rules. That means the free and open Indo-Pacific is neither free nor likely to remain open unless allies and partners shoulder greater responsibilities, starting with their own defense.
Obviously, the sharp 2016 campaign rhetoric that called on America’s allies to do more was not the only guidance for the new strategy. As we saw with Trump’s successful visits to Japan and South Korea, burden sharing is a mutually agreed policy rather than a major area of friction. Japan and South Korea are both eager to take greater responsibility for their defense and the Trump administration is keen to support them, including through the transfer of new technology and defense equipment, but also through better coordination, interoperability, and where appropriate, integration.
Although more of a step change than something new, Trump is also looking to bolster ties with newer partners. The “Indo” in a free and open Indo-Pacific points the way to take U.S.-India relations to the next level. Meanwhile, Trump is demonstrating a kind of reset when it comes to managing sometimes difficult alliances with the Philippines and Thailand. And he is hoping to expand relations with other Southeast Asian partners, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Relations with Singapore and America’s southern anchor alliance with Australia remain vital to the regional strategy (although curiously the latter linchpin ally was not mentioned in the Da Nang speech).
Second, the Trump administration’s emerging free and open Indo-Pacific policy emphasizes economic growth, albeit more through both bilateral trade and investment than multilateral trading pacts. The Obama administration’s commitment to the liberal world order was no doubt stronger and less questioning than that of the Trump administration. Yet there is ample scope for the United States to ensure that rules are followed and to see more reciprocity in trade and greater market access when confronted with China’s state-owned enterprises without bringing down the World Trade Organization and Bretton Woods institutions created after World War II.
Indeed, Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not spar in public over possible changes to the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement. Similarly, the Trump administration is seeking to renegotiate parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, not walk away from it. And the United States has announced its interest in striking bilateral deals with all Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries.
The good news is just how focused Trump is on bolstering economic growth. Major investment and trade deals were announced in each of the three stops on Trump’s visit to Northeast Asia, including a basket of deals valued at as much as $250 billion with China. The growth in U.S.-South Korean trade and investment has been remarkable, and clearly Seoul and Washington are poised to expand on this success. Combined with tax reform and deregulation, the Trump administration hopes to rev up the slumbering U.S. economy, thereby providing greater economic opportunity for friends in the Asia-Pacific. But the White House will need to be mindful that mobilizing partners in the region will require more than an “America First” policy tendency.
A third difference from the Obama policy is the strategic center of gravity of Trump’s strategy. Obama sought to wind down costly protracted counterinsurgencies in the Middle East and Southwest Asia and pivot to opportunities in Asia. Trump seeks to successfully walk back North Korea’s impending nuclear-armed ICBM threat and prepare America for a long-term economic competition with a rising Asia.
Trump has proven to be more willing to accept risk than his predecessors — as seen in strong shows of force and occasionally heated words. Yet as his speech to the National Assembly in Seoul revealed, he is unified with Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on using maximum pressure to guide North Korea back to serious dialogue. While the White House remains committed to a denuclearized Korean peninsula, Trump set a much lower bar for North Korea to return to the bargaining table. Hopefully with far more serious effort from China and Russia, North Korea will eventually find diplomacy preferable to ever-growing tension.
Trump seeks to forge as much cooperation as possible with China, America’s largest trading partner in the region. But Trump is not willing to forfeit longstanding interests just because Xi Jinping thinks China should be at the center of the world stage by the middle of this century. The new focus in Washington is on ensuring that the United States retains its competitive edge in the face of fierce and growing competition with China. China’s new assertiveness was on display at the 19th Party Congress, where Xi gained authority with renewed focus on state capitalism and asserting the centrality of the Communist Party and Chinese sovereignty.
In sum, the heart of the Trump administration’s policy is to preserve American power and invest in those capabilities that will allow the United States to retain strategic influence across the vast and dynamic Indo-Pacific region. The president’s first trip to Asia afforded an excellent opportunity to outline this policy. In the coming months and years, the Trump administration will embroider on this basic framework with more specific policies. Notwithstanding a strong preference for bilateral rather than multilateral trade, there is far more continuity than change in America’s posture in Asia. And that should be a welcome development.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, DC.