The future of U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific rests on the legitimacy granted Washington through its regional network of alliances. However, by some measures, the United States has become increasingly unhinged from its Asian partners of late.
One recent study of elite opinions in Southeast Asia found that 59.1 percent believe U.S. power is waning, a further 21.2 percent regard Washington’s influence as unchanged, and an alarming 68 percent feel U.S. engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under U.S. President Donald Trump has deteriorated. At a time when the United States’ fastest-growing trade and security partners are all in Asia, Washington’s reliability in the Indo-Pacific is an open question – and U.S. allies and partners in the region may threaten to hedge their commitments or expand their playbook of options, accordingly.
Make no mistake, the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy is a worthy addition to U.S. policy in Asia. According to the Pentagon’s latest report on the subject in June, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy revolves around the simultaneous enhancement of America’s economic engagement, security cooperation, and rule-making potential – objectives that are consistent with prior strategic thinking about the region. Better still, FOIP’s adroit balancing act between trade, security, and governance also aligns with the approaches of key partners like Japan and Australia.
But despite Trump’s efforts to date, regional counterparts appear to be slow-walking their reaffirmed commitments to his “free and open” rhetoric. As the spiraling tensions between Japan and South Korea illustrate, even important allies are not unconditionally on board with U.S. partner-building projects in the Indo-Pacific. This equivocation – even among fellow democratic countries – begs a conversation about why the current approach is struggling to rally support.
In our view, the problem begins with a widening perceptions gap between the United States and Asia. On economics and security, Washington’s increasingly protectionist treatment of traditional allies, exclusionary policies toward strategic competitors, and noncommittal attitude to global challenges like climate change, are muddying international views regarding its commitment to inclusive prosperity. On governance, meanwhile, Washington’s best efforts to promote the rule of law, transparency, accountability, human rights, and democratic civil society are facing stiff resistance from authoritarian regimes around the world, who are finding it easier than ever to maintain social control with the proliferation of new technologies.
In theory, U.S.-supported norms and values contributing to a safer and more prosperous regional order, as well as mutual security concerns regarding China, North Korea, and major environmental and resource challenges in developing areas across South and Southeast Asia, should incentivize greater cooperation with the United States.
Objectively speaking, however, U.S. influence is in relative decline compared to rising powers like China and India. Despite the United States’ robust economic, military, and people-to-people ties with the Indo-Pacific, U.S. policymakers must also square with the reality that Asia has soured to Washington’s potential for delivering positive results in the wake of Washington’s costly military interventions in the Middle East and central role in setting off the Great Recession.
Already, military planners see gaps in U.S. preparedness versus China and Russia. Asia EDGE, the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, the BUILD Act, and other recent U.S. initiatives to address an estimated $26 trillion infrastructure investment need in Asia through 2030 are advancing development assistance at the working level, but the U.S. approach has been generally restrained by limited resources and coordination between policymakers and the private sector. The Trump administration’s ongoing assault on free trade norms and disdain for global institutions and multilateral initiatives, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord, further emphasize the current lack of cohesive policy in Washington.
Even Trump’s early reluctance to challenge countries like Myanmar and the Philippines on their human rights offenses, as well as John Bolton’s departure from his national security advisor post – our third in less than three years – underscores the administration’s troubling breakdown in foreign policy and national security decision-making.
While most Americans remain pro-engagement and trade, there is also waning domestic buy-in – especially among younger voters – for looking after alliances and limiting the influence of major competitors like China and Russia. With the ongoing displacement of U.S. manufacturing by cheap labor in Asia and new technologies like AI, Americans have increasingly harbored a narrow preference for elected officials who oppose foreign policies which do not recognizably benefit the United States. This crisis of confidence is illustrated by the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump’s “America first” ideology; the recent push by a handful of Democratic presidential hopefuls for a more conservative, less muscular foreign policy; and the growing tendency for corporate and other domestic special interests to tie the administration’s hands overseas.
Given these macro-trends, a big challenge for U.S. policymakers going forward will be to manage foreign expectations of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific, even as Washington’s attention is increasingly diverted by its shifting balance of power with China.
The token interest and occasional transactionalism with which Trump treats partner and competitor nations alike has already had repercussions for U.S. alliance management in Asia.
The ongoing tailspin in Japan-South Korea relations is a prime example. The Trump administration’s reluctance to intervene publicly in the politically-charged disagreements between Tokyo and Seoul – though well-founded in its concern for appearing too heavy-handed – provides oxygen for a diplomatic coup by China. Beijing is already posturing to stage an intervention, urging the two sides at a recent ministerial to move forward with a trilateral free trade deal.
Analysts attribute the current tensions to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s unilateral political motives for reversing his disgraced predecessor’s efforts to resolve the legacy of Japan’s colonization of Korea. But while history and domestic politics are sustained drivers of the bilateral relationship, they do not fully explain why the two countries’ perceptions of each other have fluctuated so wildly just in the last two years.
Rather, the recent downturn may also be symptomatic of a series of diplomatic missteps by the United States. In 2015, for instance, the Obama administration angered South Korean civil society when it dismissed Seoul’s comfort women protests against Japan, calling them a “cheap” ploy by nationalists – this came off as insensitive and required further clarification to rally both sides to a compromise. Notwithstanding a trilateral intelligence-sharing pact in 2016, the United States under Trump has continued to behave erratically, criticizing its bilateral trade relationships with both countries, demanding favorable alliance cost-sharing terms from Seoul (and soon Tokyo), and reducing military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for questionable concessions toward denuclearization from North Korea. Washington should not be responsible for treating fractures between Japan and South Korea, but it has the ability to play an important role in helping the two sides work out their differences.
Pacific and Indian ocean states vital for their location at various military and commercial chokepoints are also hesitant to embrace the “free and open” vision. While the ASEAN member states, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and even Pakistan chafe at China’s “string of pearls” strategy to extend its sea lines of communication to the Middle East and Africa, their dependency on economic incentives from Beijing forces them to respond flexibly and ambiguously – both pivoting to and away from Washington. As a result, the region threatens to become more unstable, with states forced to look to their own needs first absent a coherent rules-based order.
In the South China Sea, ASEAN remains alert to the limitations of U.S. “saber-rattling” in response to China’s asymmetric provocations. Leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are wary of relying too heavily on a distant foreign power whose military primacy regional analysts increasingly doubt. Their uncertainty also reflects the inherent constraints on U.S. deterrence of threatening major-power war over small stakes, sometimes discussed in the context of Washington’s Article 5 commitments to Japan’s defense of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
ASEAN’s meandering code of conduct (COC) negotiations with China will only further hinder the United States. While the talks would advance a framework for restricting Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, China’s de facto control over many of the disputed islands suggests its military presence there will eventually become the new status quo – COC or no COC. Moreover, Beijing’s demands for the COC to restrict joint military exercises with external powers – if accepted – would undermine ASEAN’s efforts to keep the United States in play in Southeast Asia.
The situation is similar in South Asia. India’s recent border skirmishes with China and clashes with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir have incentivized a more assertive Indian foreign policy centered around expanded military cooperation and intelligence-sharing with the United States. On the other hand, Trump’s criticisms of India’s trade protectionism, and local skittishness about U.S.-China competition, are prompting no small amount of hedging in New Delhi.
Given Washington’s obsession with its intensifying competition with China, the United States faces accusations of detachment and insensitivity from small- and middle-power Asia. Regional fears of abandonment often manifest as concern about U.S. adherence to “ASEAN centrality.”
This anxiety is misguided. While U.S. Asia policymakers may increasingly appear single-minded in their focus on China, Americans have generally sought a broad perspective of the region. A close reading indeed shows that the U.S. public is less concerned than Washington about China. Their optimism is well-founded given the high level of recent U.S. engagement with the Indo-Pacific, in terms of total volume of trade and investment flows to and number of domestic jobs supported by the region, as well as the strength of travel and tourism, cultural and educational exchanges, and even sister state/city partnerships.
However, the United States can also do a better job of communicating that its efforts in the region are not entirely about countering Beijing. To the extent that China’s impact on the region is not all negative, the Trump administration can do more to steer development policy toward a place where sustainable and inclusive governance principles – such as transparency, accountability, and the empowerment of marginalized local stakeholders – become common practice.
This expanded perspective will be particularly significant for U.S. and allied efforts to finance “quality” infrastructure development and capacity-building in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, that were treated as geopolitical pawns during the Cold War. Indeed, Washington’s response to the Mekong delta’s complex water disputes with upstream countries like China, specifically regarding the negative environmental and economic impacts of various dam projects, could serve as a telling barometer of its support for best practices in this historically tokenized part of the region.
In a geopolitical landscape as diverse and tumultuous as the Indo-Pacific, the path to good governance will be fraught with setbacks. But in the long-run, the United States’ enduring presence in Asia can do more rather than less to convince dubious countries of a rules-based system’s ability to foster conditions for political stability and economic strength over time.
Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Matthew Sullivan is a projects coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of the East-West Center.