Photo: Viet Tuan
The arrival of the new Trump administration is certain to result in shifting priorities in the Asia-Pacific region.
As I consistently argued last year, the US policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific had a shelf life - until President Obama’s term in office expired. No matter who was elected president, the term “rebalance” would be replaced by another brand name to reflect the new president’s priorities.
It was the occasion of Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Asia as Secretary of State that the question of the rebalance came up. Ms. Susan Thornton, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, noted in response to a question that the term rebalance “was a word that was used to describe Asia policy in the last administration.” She ventured that the new Trump administration “will have its own formulation.”
Jettisoning the term rebalance was not due to any pressure from China or any other country. President Trump has called for “peace through strength” by raising the defense budget by 10 per cent and by building up the US Navy. At the moment, a newly-appointed Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Strategy, Ms. Nadia Schadlow, has been appointed to the National Security Council. She has been tasked with drawing up the US National Security Strategy as mandated by the US Congress. It is likely that by the time this document is issued the Trump administration will have coined a new term to describe its policy towards the Asia-Pacific.
The Trump administration will no longer use the terms “rebalance” or “pivot” because they were adopted by the Obama administration. This does not signal any downgrade in the US’s force posture in the Asia-Pacific. The main concession that Trump made to China was to reaffirm US support for the One China Policy as a precondition of his telephone call with President Xi Jinping. It is noticeable that Trump has not called China a currency manipulator recently nor has he taken any action to put a high tariff on Chinese goods coming into the US.
President Trump needs China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea, which the US considers the biggest security threat to its interests at present in the Asia-Pacific. China insisted on an informal summit at Mar-a-Lago to give President Jinping some flexibility. In other words, the two leaders can exchange views and agree on what steps to take next without all the formality of an official State visit. This summit will be only the first step.
President Trump will gain from this initiative because the world community and his domestic audience will view his leadership in positive terms. Cooperation between the US and China is necessary for global and regional stability and security.
Impact on US allies
It is clear that the Trump administration is giving priority to alliance relations with Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. This is necessary to deal with the North Korean problem. The administration would like to see South Korea and Japan patch up their differences over so-called “comfort women” and work effectively in a trilateral framework with the US.
Singapore will welcome Trump’s policies of “peace through strength” as long as it means the US will remain engaged in promoting security and stability in East Asia. As a trading nation, cooperative US-China relations are vital for Singapore’s prosperity.
Though both Thailand and the Philippines are US treaty allies, very little if anything has been said by Trump administration officials. President Trump has not spoken out on human rights and the promotion of democracy, so both Thailand and the Philippines can expect that relations will not deteriorate and that the status quo can be changed slowly into more positive direction.
ASEAN & the US
It seems clear at this point that President Trump and his inner circle do not value multilateral organizations such as the EU and the G20. They have not commented on ASEAN. What we know of Trump’s views make it likely that he will not be as active as President Obama in attending many ASEAN leaders’ meetings and summits. Proposed budget cuts to the Department of State may mean that initiatives launched by the Obama administration may be wound back. It is difficult to see the Trump administration giving ASEAN anything more than political support in its discussions with China on the East Sea.
Chinese actions in the East Sea will become one of a number of issues between Washington and Beijing but will be lower down the list of priorities. At present the Trump administration has no strategy to deal with Chinese assertiveness and militarization in the East Sea. China will play a two-level game. First, it will try to draw the US into cooperating on global issues - North Korea, ISIS terrorism, and economic and trade issues. On the second level, it will try to convince the US that the East Sea is a lower order issue best left to regional states.
ASEAN and its members, including Vietnam, should work hard to convince the Trump administration that continued US engagement - political, diplomatic, economic and defense/security - is essential to regional peace and stability not only for the sake of Southeast Asia but to balance China so that Southeast Asia can retain its autonomy and centrality.
While ASEAN must hope for the best, it must also work hard to make itself more unified through strengthening regional community building. ASEAN must work harder with all its dialogue partners to take up the slack left by the Trump administration’s lack of focus on the region. ASEAN’s core members, including Vietnam, need to promote new multi-nodal arrangements with Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Russia. Vietnam, for its part, should ensure that each of its strategic and comprehensive partnerships function to the maximum extent possible. In other words, until the Trump administration decides on what it wants in Asia-Pacific, regional states will have to take initiatives to meet current challenges.
ASEAN will have to wait for its cycle of ministerial meetings to take place to see if US secretaries of defense and state turn up and what message they convey. The Philippines, as ASEAN Chair, will have to work doubly hard to secure President Trump’s agreement to attend the annual leaders’ meeting. Vietnam, as host of APEC, will have to work equally hard to secure Trump’s agreement to attend the APEC Summit.