Accelerating instability in the region

Nearly four years on the Trump administration’s policy has helped make Asia a more dangerous place than it was in 2016.

Professor Nick Bisley (Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University)

Donald J. Trump’s election was met with mixed emotions across Asia.

In Beijing, the first reaction was one of relief as the party elites believed that Hillary Clinton was going to take a harder line on them than her predecessor. As a Republican from the private sector, they assumed Trump would take a more pragmatic line toward China.

Allies were unsettled — the norm busting candidate had made clear he thought that U.S. partners were getting a free ride and believed they had to pay a lot more for their security.

For their part, ASEAN states were sure that Obama’s enthusiasm for the Southeast Asian club would not be sustained by someone who was as far removed from the ASEAN way as one could possibly imagine.

Nearly four years on the Trump administration’s policy has helped make Asia a more dangerous place than it was in 2016. The risks of war in Asia are greater than before, nuclear proliferation continues, and great power contestation is now the dominant feature of the region’s international order.

Clearly, this is not all Washington’s fault. But the choices of the country that had hitherto been Asia’s key stabilising force have contributed to the further deterioration of the region’s geostrategic circumstances.

China is a driver of this with ambitions to become a rule maker and power of global pre-eminence. But U.S. policy is also playing its part. Washington is attempting to sustain an old order without any clear and coherent alignment of ends and means to do so. Indeed, one of the reasons U.S. policy at present is so frustrating is that much remains of the old approach. Yet what in the past was stabilising now contributes to contestation and instability.

From the late 1970s, Washington had pursued a clear and consistent strategy in the region. Through significant forward deployment of conventional power managed through bilateral alliances it sustained a remarkably stable regional setting.

Its strategic public goods allowed Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even China to spend less on defence and focus more on domestic economic development. Its military position was linked to its economic role as the main source of inbound investment and as the largest export market.

American dominance reflected an alignment of economic and strategic interests for most countries in the region. But as China became more wealthy and powerful, the balance of power is changing and the way Asia’s economy functioned has been transformed.

The Obama administration’s ‘rebalance to Asia’ strategy was an attempt to modify U.S. policy to manage these historic changes.

Under Trump, U.S.-Asia strategy has been incoherent. There have been three distinct articulations of policy emanating from Washington. The first, described in 2017’s National Security Strategy, set out to transform the U.S. approach to the world by putting great power competition with China and Russia as the core purpose of Washington’s global role.

The second appeared in the notion of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ first set out in a speech to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) business leaders in November 2017.

It sketched out what was in essence a policy of continuity with the past and was echoed by senior officials, whether based in Washington or posted to missions in the region. Where the National Security Strategy set out a transformation in U.S. attitudes, this declared that U.S. policy had not changed. Washington was a reliable ally pursuing the same regional ambitions it had for decades.

The third came from the President himself whose theatricality seemed informed by a belief that the performance of statecraft was statecraft.

Beyond the daily mess of tweets, his focus on crises, personalisation of bilateral relations and economic mercantilism compounded the problems of trying to maintain both a status quo and a transformational approach to regional ambitions.

Beyond this, Washington has failed to grapple with the complex reality of Asia’s new economic landscape. Under Trump the U.S. has a regional economic policy at odds with what can be discerned of its strategic ambitions.

China is now the number one trading partner of all key countries in Asia. While the U.S. remains important — both as a trade and an investment partner — Washington needs a more sophisticated approach than a thoughtless tearing up of trade agreements and bluster about great big new deals.

America’s allies have been shaken both by the inconstancy of U.S. policy - from Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s widely publicised ‘bad phone call’ to the virtual ignoring of South Korea in the Trump-Kim dalliance - as well as the uncertainty about its long term power and purpose. While in many countries debates are beginning about options beyond the U.S. alliance, the extent to which countries like Japan and Australia depend on US military capacity and intelligence means that they have little choice but to continue on their current trajectory.

The one exception to this may well be in South Korea. Four years ago no one would have contemplated that any ally would move out of the U.S. orbit. But the combination of what feels like stand-over tactics on host nation payments, the lack of consultation, inclusion or indeed consideration of Seoul’s interests and the literal abuse heaped on the country by the president means that it is now thinkable, even if unlikely, that the ROK could move away from the U.S. This act would truly revolutionise Asia’s strategic setting.

Four years ago, Asia was on a trajectory of greater contestation. Now competition among the major powers, particularly between China and the United States, is the dominant feature of the region’s international relations.

To be clear, the U.S. position in Asia and the order which it has sustained has been changing for a long time. The Trump administration’s approach has accelerated these trends — China’s influence has grown, doubts about Washington’s power and purpose have further increased and allies find themselves in a world very different from that which they had grown used to over the past four decades.

One salutary effect of the first Trump administration’s Asia policy, however, is that it should remind us that no country should be assumed to always think of its regional interests in the same way.

Equally, it should also prompt serious policy makers to realise that stability, security and prosperity in contested Asia will not be achieved by simply winding back the clock to a time when everyone accepted U.S. dominance and were content with their lot.