Trump’ s Asia visit tests US strategy

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/10 20:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

As the White House prepares for US President Donald Trump's first trip to East Asia next month, the question a perplexed region awaits an answer to is: does the US have a coherent Asia strategy?

The endless barrage of tweets and Trump's "America first" philosophy have so far led mostly to a confusing swirl of contradictory behavior. One of Trump's first moves upon taking office in January was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which had been portrayed by the Obama administration as a pillar of the renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific known as "The Pivot" or Rebalance.

Trump similarly described the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as a "disaster" and recently threatened to end it, as his trade advisors seek to renegotiate it along with the North American FTA.

Trump has also on several occasions expressed skepticism about US alliances, the linchpin of US security strategy. During the presidential campaign, he suggested that Japan and South Korea should get nuclear weapons, and charged both Seoul and Tokyo with insufficient host nation support for US forward based forces.

Yet Trump has developed a close relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and US Defense Secretary James Mattis has repeatedly reaffirmed US defense commitments to South Korea and Japan. Trump's proposed increase in the US defense budget to some $620 billion includes a $7.5 billion increase to strengthen US military capabilities in the region.

Trump has said it would "be an honor" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but also derided him as "rocket man" and said that the regime "won't be around much longer" if they continue their threatening behavior. Trump has so bewildered Pyongyang that they have been frantically trying to meet with US Korea experts to get a better understanding of the US president.

His views on China have swung wildly from threatening to impose 40 percent tariffs on Chinese exports, rejecting a trade accord US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has reached with Beijing, to praising Xi Jinping for cooperating to press North Korea to denuclearize, then lamenting that China is not doing enough. The Trump administration is conducting a major review of its China policy, the results of which are likely to be on display when he visits Beijing.

Trump prides himself on being unpredictable, and the contradictory mix of words and actions suggests little to show that he is succeeding.

If China and North Korea are unsure of Trump's intentions, US allies privately wonder if they can still rely on Washington and appear to be increasingly hedging. There is growing support in Seoul for nuclear weapons, and President Moon Jae-in wants to speed up a transition to South Korean control of the Combined Forces Command.

Despite the Trump administration's reaffirmation of the US-Japan alliance, there are hints of unease in Tokyo. The TPP has been a top priority for Abe, and in the aftermath of Trump's rejection, Tokyo recast its strategy, moving forward with the TPP absent the US, reaching an EU-Japan FTA, and offering an ambiguous response to US calls for a bilateral trade deal. On security issues, in the face of North Korean missiles flying over Japan, there is renewed debate in Tokyo about whether Japan should have its own first strike capability.

Trump's recent UN General Assembly speech bluntly articulated his "America first" nationalist approach to foreign policy. I counted at least 16 references to "sovereignty" or "national sovereignty." But he sharply criticized globalization and "big multinational trade deals." The word "multilateral" did not appear in his speech.

So how will Trump approach Asian multilateralism? The APEC meeting in Vietnam will likely take up "globalization 2.0" and move to realize a free trade area in the Asia-Pacific. It would be a shocking about-face if Trump supported such measures. Yet continued economic integration is a priority in the region.

Similarly, what can be expected from the East Asia Summit in Manila? Pushing for more cooperation in putting pressure on North Korea is a top Trump priority, and another major issue is the South China Sea, which is considered a flash point between the US and China.

Trump's upcoming Asia trip offers an opportunity to showcase the US strategy for Asia. His challenge is to convey a US vision compatible with the trajectory of the region. Whether doubts about US credibility and reliability will be dispelled and a sense of an engaged, coherent US dynamism be projected is entirely up to Trump.

The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.


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