Will Trump’s Visit to Asia Mark the Moment US Leadership in the Region Is Irrevocably Ceded to China?

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Will Trump’s Visit to Asia Mark the Moment US Leadership in the Region Is Irrevocably Ceded to China?

Trump must show that he can think strategically and not just transactionally to avoid the worst.

Will Trump’s Visit to Asia Mark the Moment US Leadership in the Region Is Irrevocably Ceded to China?
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

U.S. President Donald Trump will make his first visit to Asia this week. His itinerary includes a stop in Hawaii, where he will be briefed by U.S. Pacific Command. Trump will then visit Japan, South Korea, and China (5-9 November). He will then attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, and address the APEC CEO Summit before making an official visit to Hanoi on 11 November. The next day, Trump will fly to Manila to participate in meetings hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to mark forty years of ASEAN-U.S. relations and ASEAN’s fiftieth founding anniversary.

According to administration spokespersons, Trump’s visit has two main strategic objectives. The first is to reassure U.S. allies and strategic partners that the United States remains steadfast in its opposition to North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests. Trump will also pressure China to add further pressure on North Korea to cease and desist from its nuclear proliferation program.

The second objective of Trump’s Asia trip is to demonstrate that the United States will continue to support the region’s prime multilateral institutions, APEC and ASEAN. Curiously, the two White House media statements on Trump’s Asian trip did not specifically mention the East Asia Summit (EAS), but referred to ASEAN-related institutions.

Trump’s every word and action will have considerable weight in the eyes of regional leaders, who will be looking for answers to fundamental questions: Can he be trusted? Can he provide reassurance that the United States will remain engaged in Asia-Pacific? Or will his ‘chop and change’ brand of strategic uncertainty become the new normal?

More importantly: Will November 2017 mark the moment the United States ceded leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region to China because Trump lacks the experience and conceptual ability to think strategically rather than transactionally?

As Trump embarks on his Asia trip it is pertinent to ask: what has Trump accomplished in the field of foreign relations after nearly a year in office? And what can we expect to come during the rest of his term in office?

One clear accomplishment is that Trump has generated unprecedented strategic uncertainty across the globe with respect to U.S. leadership in world affairs. Trump has flip flopped on U.S. commitments to NATO, he has withdrawn the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate change agreement, and has shown disdain for multilateral trade agreements.

Trump has pursued three general foreign policy objectives: defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), opposing nuclear proliferation in North Korea, and renegotiating free trade agreements, particularly NAFTA.

Trump has been quick to take credit for changing the rules of engagement and giving U.S. military commanders greater authority to prosecute the war on the Islamic State.  The Islamic State has lost much of the territory on which it based its Caliphate and suffered a major defeat with the loss of Raqqa.

It is too early to pass judgment on Trump’s war in Afghanistan. What seems evident is Trump stresses the importance of military power to defeat the Islamic State while no clear strategy has emerged that weaves together all the elements of national power – political diplomatic and economic – to defeat international terrorism and religious extremism around the world.

Trump’s attempt to bring peace to the Middle East stalled immediately as it was launched. Son-in-law Jared Kushner saw, went and failed to conquer Arab leaders. Trump policy has exacerbated tensions between Qatar and its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s denunciation of the multi-party Iran nuclear deal carries a high risk that U.S. policy will be counter-productive in the long run. Trump’s anti-Iran stance is aimed at halting Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East; it is unclear how trashing the nuclear deal will address these actions. Iran may move to acquire nuclear weapons in the face of continued threats from the United States. Meanwhile, Iran asserts its right to continue to test ballistic missiles.

Trump can claim credit for gaining UN Security Council resolutions, for imposing tough new sanctions on North Korea, and for rallying allies and elements of the international community behind UN sanctions. Trump, however, has not given sanctions a chance to take hold. Trump doggedly espouses the view, as do his relevant Cabinet secretaries, that China can put more pressure on Pyongyang and eventually Kim Jong-un will back down. Trump’s supporters laud his provocative comments to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea and his tweets derisively aimed at the “rocket man.” Trump’s critics worry that this war of words between Trump and Kim will lead one or the other to miscalculate and stumble into armed conflict.

Although it can be argued that the jury is still out on Trump versus North Korea, it is very likely North Korea will emerge as a de facto nuclear state.

Trump’s disdain for free trade agreements, bilateral or otherwise, has opened the door to President Xi Jinping to take the high road as an exponent of globalization and an opponent of protectionism. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continue to argue that there are plenty of arrows in Trump’s economic quiver to bring a recalcitrant China to ground. At the informal summit in Mar-a-Lago earlier this year between Trump and Xi, the two leaders agreed to hold bilateral discussions on trade and economic issues. These discussions have made little progress. Nonetheless the two leaders have been in telephone contact which is a positive sign. It is premature to make any assessment of the outcome other than “watch this space.”

Trump has achieved a measure of success in bilateral diplomacy, but it has not been all on his own initiative. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quick off the mark to visit Trump in Washington and then confer at Mar-a-Lago. And Vietnam was the first country in Southeast Asia to obtain an invitation for its prime minister to meet Trump in White House.

Trump has received the Prime Ministers of Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore in Washington too in separate bilateral official visits. His invitation to President Duterte of the Philippines has not been taken up, though the two are scheduled to meet in Manila at the end of Trump’s Asia trip.

Trump has overcome an initially rocky relationship with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the two countries are working effectively to address a range of security issues including defeating Islamic State and halting proliferation on the North Korean peninsula.

The bottom line is that Trump is pursuing a transactional foreign policy bereft of any overarching strategy. The Trump Administration was required to present Congress a National Security Strategy within 150 days of coming into office. This deadline has been missed. A National Security Strategy may be drawn up in the first half of 2018 at the earliest.

There are glaring inconsistencies in Trump’s foreign policy. His attack on the Iran nuclear deal and kicking it to Congress with the threat of withdrawal must be squared with pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table. Why would Kim Jong-un agree to talks on an agreement if Trump could walk away on any pretext?

In the meantime, the United States has adopted a Northeast Asia First foreign policy in East Asia, mainly focused on North Korea. Southeast Asia is an orphan by comparison. Trump approved a new plan for freedom of navigation operational patrols (FONOPs) and his Secretary of State rails against China’s violations of a rules-based order. How are these two related? In other words, how will FONOPs influence China to halt its militarization in the South China Sea?

There is no concerted U.S. strategy towards ASEAN, a key regional association in Southeast Asia. Trump has dealt individually with four heads of government. But he has made no move to exert leadership over regional economic integration. If State Department funding is cut the United States capability to deal with non-traditional security challenges will dwindle and so will U.S. influence.

Trumps’ combative polarization of U.S. society, and the rancor of political discourse in Washington, erodes the foundations of U.S. soft power – the ability to attract others to be more like the United States. Xi Jinping has moved into this void with a condemnation of Western liberal values and offering China as a model for other states to follow.

Trump’s approach to human rights has been episodic. He congratulates Duterte for his war on drugs on the one hand while the State Department derides Myanmar for is suppression of the Rohingya ethnic minority on the other. The White House has been silent about Prime Minister Hun Sen’s dismantlement of liberal democracy in Cambodia and his evisceration of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Trump’s visit to Asia offers a unique chance to promote a strategy to guide the United States’ engagement in the region diplomatically, politically, economically, and militarily. The word rebalance may have been dropped from the lexicon of American diplomacy, but some concept must be conjured up by Donald Trump to inspire regional states to follow American leadership. If he continues to portray the United States as a victim of Chinese chicanery, Trump will have effectively passed the baton of leadership to Xi Jinping in the eyes of Southeast Asian states and signaled that the post-war era of U.S. primacy is rapidly drawing to a close. It does the United States little good to outmatch China in military power if there is no leadership and strategy to use all elements of national power to bolster a rules-based regional and global order.

No incident is more telling than the announcement that Trump will leave Manila early and miss the East Asian Summit (EAS), an eighteen-member body that includes U.S. allies and partners Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, India and Singapore. Xi Jinping can now stand up and address the EAS with his arm resting on Trump’s empty seat. The United States claims the U.S. is a resident power, China claims the U.S. is an outside power. Trump’s actions will speak louder than his words.