What does an effective Asia policy entail for the United States? Which strategic issues must the United States confront with China and its allies in Asia-Pacific? In this interview, Jake Sullivan draws from his experiences to talk about North Korea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and One Belt One Road. He discusses his strategic vision for American foreign policy in Asia and takes stock of the Trump administration’s approach.
American foreign policy toward Asia was one of “Pivot” under Clinton. It has now been rebranded as a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” by the Trump administration. What are your thoughts on that?
The Trump administration’s Asia Strategy at the moment is basically a North Korea Strategy and a Trade Escalation Strategy. Otherwise there is no comprehensive, integrated security/economic/political approach for the region as a whole, other than a form of words – the “free and open Indo-Pacific.” There is little that actually reflects a systematic effort to advance U.S. interests. I think the administration has a lot of work to do to actually supply content to make this label mean something.
In a speech at the Lowy Institute last year, you had stated that America’s Asia policy should be heavily focused on North Korea. Do you think that the United States should pay special attention to North Korea as opposed to some of the other countries in the region?
The North Korea nuclear challenge is a pressing and urgent issue. It deserves paramount attention from the United States and I give the Trump administration some credit for focusing on that issue, trying to rally the world to a pressure campaign, and now being open to diplomacy. But we have to be able to pursue a North Korea strategy while we are also pursuing a broader approach to the region as a whole. And it’s that latter piece that is missing in American foreign policy. I think that President Trump does not believe in an effort to build institutions in Asia that must lie at the core of any effective American policy. He doesn’t believe in multilateral trade deals like the TPP. He doesn’t believe in the usefulness of security and political institutions like the East Asia Summit. He doesn’t believe in the carrying forward of effective military alliances. So, the United States is acting as something of a free radical — occasionally rallying other countries to deal with issues like North Korea, but otherwise doing nothing systematic to build a rules-based order for the Asia-Pacific. That creates a vacuum which is currently being filled by Chinese adventurism. And our friends and allies who are looking around and saying, “What are we supposed to do? We don’t have American leadership.”
You mentioned the TPP. Hillary Clinton was herself not in support of it. And now it is believed that Trump may be reconsidering his decision to withdraw from the TPP. What do you think about a possible return to the TPP?
Well firstly, the big difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was that while they both opposed the specific terms of the TPP, Hillary Clinton was a strong supporter of some kind of multilateral trade architecture in Asia. And even though Donald Trump has reportedly given indications about rejoining the TPP, he quickly came out and said “no, I’m not going to do it.” I think we can rely on Trump’s resistance to any kind of meaningful multilateral agreement as a good guide for what he intends to do going forward. So I don’t think he is going to join the TPP or pursue an alternative route. I think he is focused on trying to pursue bilateral trade deals in Asia, which is not going to construct the kind of order that is required for an effective American economic strategy in the region. At the end of the day, the United States has to lead in crafting the institutions, alliances, partnerships, and rules that can make the Asia-Pacific region more secure, more prosperous, and more stable. The Trump administration and the president himself have shown very little interest in undertaking that project.
Talking about the region’s strongest power China, do you believe in the possibility of a “Thucydides trap” through recent escalations like the trade war or ongoing tensions in the South China Sea?
I do not believe that the conflict between the United States and China is inevitable. And I think that we must do everything we can to not make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that a responsible stewardship of the U.S.-China relationship involves a healthy mix of cooperation on key issues where we have shared interests, and competition, particularly in the economic realm.
In my view, we should work to hold China accountable to the rules of the international economy and not let it take undue advantage of its trading partners. But we should do that in a sober, clear way so that it doesn’t lead to an escalation cycle that results in a trade war. That means being tough on enforcement, pushing back on Chinese policies around intellectual property and forced localization, and it means asserting a principle of reciprocity when it comes to access to Chinese markets (opening up to U.S. companies like the U.S. has opened up to Chinese companies). We can accomplish that without getting into a full-out trade war. That requires not just strength but sobriety, and that worries me about the current administration because I think their sobriety is in short supply.
How do you think the United States should react to Chinese strategic efforts like One Belt One Road (OBOR)?
I think the United States has to consult closely with all of our partners in the region about what exactly OBOR entails, how it is likely to unfold, the degree to which it is going to involve things like predatory financing and policies that hurt states along its periphery. And to the extent that we have concerns, we should have an aggressive and unified multilateral response that makes clear that we object to anything that involves trying to make states along China’s border subservient. But we have no objection to investments in infrastructure or economic development and if we are effective in our diplomacy, we can steer OBOR in a more constructive and sustainable direction and have it turn into something that is not a bid for regional or global domination. But that is going to require sustained and effective diplomacy and this endeavor is going to have to last through future administrations as well.
How much credit does President Trump deserve for the recent developments between North-South Korea?
I think the main reason that you have seen Kim Jong-un make a shift from a highly aggressive posture to a more conciliatory posture has to do with Kim Jong-un’s assertion that he has achieved the capability to mount his nuclear weapons on ICBMs. And having achieved the capability, he is now prepared to negotiate from a position of strength. That is the dominant reason for this turn of events. Did U.S. sanctions and U.S. pressure help on the margins? I think probably yes. I think the administration deserves some credit in building the sanctions regime, getting the Chinese to take more meaningful action and getting other countries on board as well. But I do not believe that sanctions or saber rattling are the primary cause of this change in North Korean behavior. I think the United States has to be careful not to conclude otherwise.
What is the key element of an Asia policy that will work for Americans?
I think the American people are open to an effective multilateral trade pact that raises American wages, protects American jobs, and advances American national security. And I think that we have to pursue such a pact. I don’t think TPP itself was a perfect agreement but I think something that tries to cover similar ground while also ensuring that it puts American middle-class workers front and center has to be a crucial part of our Asia strategy. We also have to continue to work on a geographically diverse and sustainable force posture in the region to make clear that the U.S. will remain a resident power in Asia. And we have to continue to build institutions in the Asia-Pacific region like the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum so that they work to produce cooperation and set effective rules. On those pillars – economic-security-political – you can build an effective and sustained policy in which we work with the rest of the region to respond to China’s rise in a way that directs it into a more constructive rather than destructive direction. That’s how I would conceive the broad strokes of an effective American policy in Asia. And I would add one more thing – it has to be rooted in American values, because we can’t abandon our basic commitment to democracy and human rights as the cornerstones of our foreign policy. It means that we have to stand for something.
Finally, what avenues exist beyond government-mandated foreign policy to advance U.S. interests in Asia?
The United States needs to be sending a signal at multiple levels that our policy and posture toward Asia is about more than just one person (the president). It’s about bipartisan support for our alliances and partnerships in the region. Democrats and Republicans should be expressing that. It is about leaders at all levels of government, governors and mayors, who want to work with their counterparts in Asia on hard challenges like climate change and economic development. It’s also about the private sector – dynamic arrangements between American businesses and their counterparts across the region. It’s about nonprofit organizations working to better the lives of people on both sides of the Pacific. And it’s just about the basic people to people exchanges, education, culture and travel. I think we can strengthen the bond of trust and commitment by operating at all of these levels.
Riddhima Yadav is a senior at Yale studying Ethics, Politics and Economics. She is additionally a Kerry Fellow, working with former Secretary of State John Kerry on his multidisciplinary program at Yale. She has worked for the United Nations.