What does Trump's Asia policy amount to?

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 26, 2017
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Apart from creating maximum uncertainty - which may be a policy in itself, though a dangerous one - what are Donald Trump's plans for Asia-Pacific strategy under his administration? This is not only relevant to China, but to all the USA's partners in the region.

Typically, both commercial partners and military allies in Asia look to the U.S. both for security and for trade and investment. Hard and soft power have always complemented each other as twin pillars of a comprehensive regional strategy. The U.S. has always been good at this, combining the prospect of opportunities presented by its economic power with a cultural offering that most of the world's citizens find attractive and a strong military presence unobtrusively in the background.

But what is happening now? Trump appears to be aiming to readjust the soft power/hard power balance - but to what end? As promised, one of his first actions as President was to promulgate an executive order ending America's commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), on which American allies such as Japan, the ROK and Australia have been working very hard for a considerable amount of time. His constant reiteration of "America First" in his inauguration speech strongly suggested that the U.S. resources devoted to the Asia-Pacific face deprioritization and reduction.

It would appear that Trump is giving up on the idea of creating a global trading architecture based on the interface of a number of regional and sub-regional trade organizations, which has been the pattern of the last 10 to 15 years, strongly backed by China. The TPP, however, was intended as a regional counterpoise to Chinese economic power - including all the region's significant players with the exception of China. Now, thanks to the USA's precipitate departure from the scene, those regional economies that would like a set of agreed upon rules for the region's substantial trading activity will find that the only offer on the table is the Chinese-led proposal for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), in which many of the countries negotiating the TPP are already involved.

But, if America is rolling back the soft power in her interactions with the region, does that mean it is planning to switch the emphasis to hard power? There have been some ugly signs, although it is important to separate out what is said for the benefit of Trump's domestic public and what constitutes a genuine commitment.

And certainly the idea of a more assertive Asia-Pacific policy has been strongly floated. Rex Tillerson, now confirmed as Trump's Secretary of State, rattled the sabre resoundingly on the South China Sea issue during his confirmation hearing: "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed." Given that China has made a firm commitment to holding her ground in the South China Sea, this sounds like a direct threat of confrontation. It remains to be seen how Trump and Tillerson can finesse this if an ultimate U.S. climbdown is envisaged, which it is to be greatly hoped that it can.

Does Trump think that he can confront China directly, with only a dwindling supply of diplomatic implements with which to negotiate a compromise? Given that he seems to have shown little care for the interests of his regional allies in the TPP, how does he expect them to react to an American go-it-alone strategy? He surely cannot think of confronting China head-on without any reliable regional support. Smaller countries will not be happy to take sides openly between two superpowers, and it is hardly in either China's or the US's interests to force such a choice on them.

Above all, Trump's initial posturing has done nothing to build confidence anywhere in the Asia-Pacific region. This can still be reversed if the President at an early date clarifies the matter by making the case that the U.S. is not constrained by the approaches and strategies of previous administrations.

But the time-scale for this rapprochement is severely restricted. If this uncertainty is allowed to last too long, we risk an ingrained distrust of U.S. intentions, not just in China but across the region. And it has happened before (notably in 1914) that hostilities have broken out largely through a misunderstanding of the other side's intentions.

Tim Collard is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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