From April 15 to April 25, US Vice President Mike Pence paid a 10-day visit to Asia that included South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia. This visit, combined with the successive Asia-Pacific policies and gestures taken by the Trump Administration, have illustrated how the US’ regional strategy may develop in this seemingly uncertain era under Trump. Judged by the current situation and trend, it’s safe to say there is more continuity than change in the new US Asia strategy.
Compared to Obama’s much-calculated “rebalance” strategy, Trump -- in contrast to most of his campaign rhetoric such as withdrawing troops from Japan and South Korea if they don’t pay more responsibilities -- has made it a top priority to strengthen the US alliance system in the region. Since Trump came to power, he has sent Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and now Pence to visit both Japan and South Korea. He also received Prime Minister Shinzo Abe twice to reassure Japan of US obligations. As Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian Affairs. Put it a month ago, the Trump Administration will “have its own formulation” for Asia policy, which can be interpreted as having three parts: fair and free trade, regional security and “a rules-based, constructive, peaceful, stable order in Asia”. Although this administration openly rejects using “rebalance” to define its strategy, remaining active and engaged in Asia is something the US government, no matter who occupies the White House, has to stick to due to the huge economic and security interests underlying in its relations to the region.
Trump’s strategy has inherited the emphasis on the alliance system, especially with Japan, South Korea and Australia, in order to further boost Washington’s security presence and clout in Asia. On the economic front, though Trump has withdrawn from TPP, the very fundamental leg of Obama’s economic rebalance, it does not mean this administration has given up economic engagement with the region, but rather put US interest high above others in the name of “fair and balanced trade”. To persuade Japan to open FTA negotiations, imply to South Korea the possibility to renegotiate KORUS (the US-ROK FTA), and engage with Indonesia and Australia heavily in economic affairs with the bid to further open those markets and reduce tariffs, Pence has put economic issues high on the agenda in his visit, which is also consistent with Trump’s “America First” economic philosophy being carried out gradually. The possibility of returning to the TPP is still there after Trump removes bilateral obstacles and earns the preferential terms he needs, also in response to requests from such allied partners as Japan and Australia. Meanwhile, multilateral forums, one of the pillars of Obama’s rebalance and once included in Trump’s scorn for international organizations and multilateral means, have actually outperformed expectations in the new regime, with Trump planning to attend such meetings as the East Asia Summit, US-ASEAN Summit and APEC, as Pence declared during his visit to the ASEAN secretariat. Moreover, US continuity on emphasizing “regional norms” such as freedom of navigation and denuclearization shows that US officials continue to see these as instruments to tame China and play a regional leadership role.
However, the differences and development of Trump’s Asia strategy are still worth noting. First, Trump has changed the US strategic priority in the region by putting the North Korea issue at the forefront. Discarding Obama’s “strategic patience” approach, he has adopted a more proactive and forceful posture to get Pyongyang back to the negotiation table. To achieve this, he made it clear through different official channels, including Pence’s recent visit, that all options are on the table and that the US is adamant about resolving this issue this time and will not leave it untended. On one hand, reflecting his belief that deterrence only succeeds when one is resolute enough to use force, he has let the US military make preparations for a fight if necessary, aiming to curb North Korea and make it yield under pressure. On the other hand, he is pressing China to cooperate more by further pressuring North Korea; whether through suspension of coals import or oil supply, the measures must be grave enough to push North Korea back fundamentally. Amid all these, calls for negotiations on denuclearization echo once again to remind all parties of the possibility for a peaceful resolution. That’s why winning cooperation and support from the alliance and partners regarding North Korea has been a common thread through Pence’s whole visit.
Second, Trump puts the interest of the alliance above that of China. No doubt he continues to value “a constructive relationship” with China, which is a vital part of his Asia policy, and he wants to shape this relationship in a “resulted-oriented” way, i.e., to meet US interests both economically and for security. Alliances, meanwhile, are not only for boosting US influence in the region, but also helping to pressure China for this purpose. Their concerted position on North Korea, the Diaoyu Islands (specifically with Japan) and the South China Sea are cases in point.
Last, Trump also seeks economic advantages in the Asia-Pacific, though his approach is very different from Obama’s in ends and means. He has reset the goals for US trade, from seeking cutting-edge standards for a future world economy and also strengthening the US stand as a world leader under challenge from China, to securing the more short-term, inward-looking national interest based on more jobs and investments for US, mostly through bilateral interactions. Yet whether Trump can realize his “buy American, hire American” goal through diplomacy still remains to be seen.