Is Trump’s Asia tour start of US self-containment?

By Jeremy Lin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/20 19:18:40

When evaluating US President Donald Trump's recent five-country Asia tour, it's difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that the US' unipolar moment is nearing its end. Trump's erratic statecraft, as well as open disregard for the rules and institutions that underpin international order, have dramatically precipitated the erosion of America's position in global affairs, particularly in East Asia.

With a coherent Asia strategy premised on cooperation with China, rather than containment, the transition to a bipolar international system could nevertheless lead to a more stable and prosperous future. However, with Trump working to dismantle the US foreign policy establishment and basing the US external relations on his whims and impulses, we can hardly expect to see effective US policy for the region. 

While the reorientation of global leadership concerns some China observers in the West, the rise of a Sino-American bipolar configuration does not necessarily spell imminent instability for regional order. As international relations scholar John Ikenberry argues, China, in its realization of superpower status, faces an American-led international system governed by deeply-entrenched rules and institutions. In making the Western system increasingly "hard to overturn and easy to join," America provides a greater incentive for China to integrate into the existing order rather than redesign it.

Indeed, China has demonstrated that it is eager to act as a responsible stakeholder in international affairs, even filling voids in leadership left behind by the US in areas such as climate change and free trade. China's integration into the current US-led global order precludes any single regional hegemon from dominating, and countries including Japan, India and Vietnam are less likely to feel threatened by a powerful China.

Unfortunately, Trump is weakening America's commitment to multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific and choosing to chart a more perilous course in which the US does not lead the very system it created. Trump's new "Indo-Pacific" strategy signals America's desire to form deeper linkages with the maritime democracies of Australia, India and Japan, but is contradicted by the "America First" policy and his accusations of trade imbalances against allied countries.

On the campaign trail, Trump relentlessly disparaged China for "ripping the United States off," while at his recent state visit, he showered Chinese President Xi Jinping with praise and applauded China for taking advantage of what he perceives to be unfair trade practices. Meanwhile, more recently at the APEC forum in Da Nang, Trump declared that the US would no longer tolerate "chronic trade abuses" and criticized the World Trade Organization. Trump's inconsistent behavior and desire for America to downscale its leadership stand as major impediments to achieving a stable and prosperous future for the region.

While Trump's reckless diplomacy is fraught with troubling contradictions and governed by his personal impulses, he has been remarkably consistent on two fronts: his extreme susceptibility to flattery and his consistency in backtracking on accusations once he's in face-to-face meetings with those he's accused. Peter Beinart offers one explanation for Trump's dramatic shifts in behavior in The Atlantic: "Trump knows so little that—when he actually meets the people he rails against—he may be more easily swayed by their arguments."  This is especially true if those people greet him with elaborate fanfare and ceremony. No amount of pomp can prompt him to develop principled or consistent positions. Further, the pleasure he derives from the flattery fades once the military parades and state dinners are over, and he's logged back into his Twitter account.

While many questions regarding the specifics of Trump's Asia policy remain unanswered, it is critical that the US reject policies that seek to "contain" China. Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye wrote in a 2013 New York Times op-ed piece that "only China can contain China," maintaining that containment was designed for the economic isolation of the Soviet Union and as a deterrence to its military expansion.

China's peaceful rise and the stability that a bipolar system would bring to the region underscore why containment is a misguided policy tool. China's critical trade relationships with Western countries, Xi's embrace of globalization and deepening people-to-people exchanges instead provide a sound basis for sustained regional prosperity and stability. Nevertheless, the Asian balance of power is delicate and weakens without an American economic and military presence. US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump's failure to rally American allies to counter the North Korean missile threat and his promotion of his "America First" policy have already proved destabilizing.

The Asia-Pacific benefits from a robust and sustained American presence and suffers from Trump's fickle and irresponsible leadership. The Trump administration needs to formulate a coherent Asia strategy that capitalizes upon the institutionalized world order that the US and its allies have created over the last century. It also needs to show that the US remains committed to its role as a guarantor of stability in the region, as well as join Xi in his embrace of globalization.

Maintaining a strong American presence in Asia is critical to achieving stability in the emerging bipolar system, and containment is a misinformed policy for dealing with China. Perhaps China need not worry that the US will seek to contain its steady rise. Trump's Asia tour may in fact mark the beginning of America's own inadvertent self-containment.

The author is a Princeton in Asia Fellow at the China Foreign Affairs University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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