Two months into office, the Trump administration’s policy in Asia is looking increasingly more familiar than new. There are growing indications that the exigencies of American interest in the region are beginning to shape the new leadership’s approach. While jettisoning the Obama era strategic lexicon of “Pivot to Asia,” the new administration has promised to “remain active and engaged in Asia” under “its own formulation.”
The U.S. President Donald Trump made conciliatory gestures towards China, reiterating America’s commitment to the ‘one China’ policy. His widely-anticipated summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping was cordial and constructive, with no off-the-script surprises.
Though the two leaders shunned a joint press conference and statement, Trump and Xi were upbeat about the future of Sino-American relations, while agreeing to establish new and more effective mechanisms for institutionalized dialogue in order to address thorny issues such as trade and North Korea.
Earlier, during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington, Trump acknowledged the depth and value of the U.S.-Japan alliance, promising to bring “those ties even closer” and stand “100 percent” with Tokyo amid Pyongyang’s military provocations.
Weeks earlier, Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, visited South Korea and Japan to reassure the two key allies about America’s continued commitment to regional security. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made similar remarks during his latest visit to the region. In Beijing, he went so far as echoing Chinese diplomatic line by emphasizing the principle of "non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation" as the foundation of Sino-American relations.
So far, however, the American president and his key cabinet officials, namely Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have been primary focused on reassuring Northeast Asian and Western allies. With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marking its 50th anniversary, there are shared concerns about lack of diplomatic engagement, excessive military posturing in the South China Sea, and more stringent trade policy on the part of the Trump administration.
The new American government has hardly mentioned the ASEAN in its statements, nor has Trump throughout his peripatetic musings on international affairs. It is also far from clear whether Vice-President Mike Pence’ visit to Indonesia will be anything more than a vacuous exercise in ‘handshake diplomacy’ or beyond some jet fuel stop without concrete agreements put on the table.
Asia’s smaller nations fear a radical departure from the policy of the preceding Barack Obama administration, which adopted a calibrated approach to regional maritime spats, maintained an open trade and immigration policy, and invested in proactive diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asian nations. They fear strategic abandonment by Obama’s successor.
During his inauguration speech, Trump promised to revisit the superpower’s relationship with the world based on an “America first principle.” He lamented how his predecessor supposedly “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” Putting into question American commitment to the liberal international order, Trump claimed, “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”
In unequivocal terms, Trump portrayed America, the world’s most powerful nation, as a hapless victim – rather leader – of the existing international system. His populist, neo-isolationist rhetoric was soon back by actual policy. To the consternation of both friends and foes around the world, Trump initially displayed noticeable fidelity to his most controversial campaign promises, specifically on the issue of immigration and free trade.
True to his words, he nixed the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the key element of Washington’s bid to counter China’s growing economic influence in Asia, as soon as he stepped into office. This was followed by two highly controversial executive orders, which imposed temporary/permanent travel on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.
Those two decisions convinced many that Trump should be taken both literally and seriously, raising concerns over a de facto ‘Muslim ban’ and American disengagement from free trade regimes, including the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), if not the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Signaling a tougher approach to Asian economic giants, Trump branded both China and Japan as mercantilist states and currency manipulators. He threatened to impose heavy tariffs, raising the prospect of full-blown trade war among the world’s leading economies. It didn’t take long, however, before the new American president met stiff resistance from both within and without his administration.
Externally, courts suspended the implementation of his controversial restrictions on entry of refugees and immigrants from select Muslim nations. Internally, senior officials such as Rex Tillerson convinced Trump to revisit his earlier threat to recognize Taiwan’s independence in clear violation of the decades-old ‘one China’ policy, which has served as the bedrock of U.S.-China relations since the early-1970s.
Subsequently, Trump sent his Chinese counterpart a conciliatory letter, calling for great power cooperation, and reportedly held an “extremely cordial” conversation with President Xi Jinping.
On the sidelines of the G20 Summit, Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, also held the first high-level meeting between officials from both governments. By all accounts the meeting went well, with both sides vowing to pursue cooperation on shared concerns, particularly North Korea, which now seats atop the Trump administration’s foreign policy headaches.
Bracing for Trouble
Yet, Sino-American relations could still take a dangerous turn in coming months. In early February, a Chinese military surveillance aircraft flew dangerously close to a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft over the disputed waters. Days after the incident, Washington deployed, after a two-year hiatus, the US aircraft carrier (USS Carl Vinson) – accompanied by an armada of warships – as part of "routine operations" in the area.
In recent weeks, America has also been alarmed by news of impending Chinese reclamation activities in the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which lies just above 100 nautical miles away from Subic and Clark bases, the former site of America’s largest forward deployment facilities in the world. The Philippines has also been perturbed by suspicious Chinese activities in its continental shelf in the Pacific, specifically the Benham Rise.
While Mattis has called for a diplomatic solution, and insisted there is no need “for dramatic military moves” in the contested waters, he has nonetheless accused China of "shredding the trust of nations in the region" by unilaterally asserting its claims in adjacent waters. Earlier, Tillerson raised the possibility of a naval blockade on Chinese artificial islands in the Spratlys, though he downplayed those comments as soon as he assumed office.
The White House, meanwhile, is filled with China hawks such as Peter Navarro, chief trade adviser, and Steve Bannon, member of the National Security Council and Trump’s chief political strategist, who have espoused a tougher stance against China, both in the realm of trade as well as military affairs. For the Trump administration, China is posing risks to freedom of navigation and overflight in one of the most important sea lines of communications in the world.
During the ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting in Boracay, Philippines, members expressed unanimous concern over “very unsettling” militarization of disputes in the South China Sea. In particularly, there is growing worry about implications of China’s rapid development of military facilities across disputed land features, which have been artificially expanded into full-fledged islands in recent years.
Some Southeast Asian states, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, have quietly welcomed a more robust American push back against China. They view America as the only viable counterbalance to China.
As the supposed engine of regional integration, and bedrock of East Asian security architecture, the ASEAN has sought, with limited success, to mediate maritime disputes and avoid conflict in the region. But beyond concerns over the gradual loss of so-called ‘ASEAN centrality,’ Southeast Asian countries are also worried about sudden and destructive escalation in Sino-American tensions in the area, especially if the Trump administration makes a step too far in order to project toughness.
In addition, there are also lingering concerns about the possibility of the Trump administration implementing more restrictive immigration and trade measures against Southeast Asian countries, many of which run huge trade surplus (i.e., Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand) with America and have, particularly in the case of Philippines and Vietnam, large number of overseas citizens residing in the country. Above all, Southeast Asian states are worried about being completely sidelined in Trump’s emerging art of the deal in Asia.