UNITED STATES President Donald Trump’s ascension into the oval office in January undoubtedly rattled the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia.
True to form, Trump’s presidency stood to shake up long-standing policies that assured stability in the Asia-Pacific region, bringing along with it a host of questions and uncertainties.
But as ties between Trump and Asia got off to a rocky start, the first 100 days of his presidency has – despite raising anxieties in the continent – revealed a sense of direction.
According to regional analyst Dr. Satu Limaye, also the director of the East-West Center in Washington, security alliances between the US and the Asia-Pacific now appear ‘okay’.
He explains that the worst initial fears of how the president would handle these alliances, particularly with Japan and South Korea, have ended with some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric fading away. While stumping, the presidential-hopeful had, among others, mentioned getting Japan to pay more for US forces on their soil or face the possibility of their withdrawal, and that South Korea should defend itself from the North.
That narrative has changed since then, however.
In April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Trump’s “strong commitment” to global and allied security as the the two agreed that the US, Japan and South Korea will remain in close contact on North Korea.
Weighing in, Limaye said: “I am not suggesting something as simple and crude as ‘we (US) have no problem in the alliances’; what I’m suggesting is that the initial fears of security, fundamental shifts in our security alliance structure, has gone away.”
He was speaking to delegation of journalists participating in the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship 2017 programme in Honolulu, Hawaii. The three-week course to study Trump-era trade, security and strategic relationships in the Asia Pacific also took the journalists to Tokyo, Beijing, Shenzen, and Manila.
The analyst also pointed to recent high-level visits to the region by US top officials – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Japan, South Korea and China in March, along with vice-president Mike Pence, who landed in several Asian countries in April – which he said seem to have cast aside doubts over the US’s possible “abandonment” of the region.
During the annual Asian security conference in Singapore last Sunday, US secretary of defence Jim Mattis reiterated the US’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific.
“That enduring commitment is based on strategic interests and on shared values,” Mattis said, as quoted by CNN.
But while Trump’s government has remained committed to upholding Asian security guarantees, Limaye observed there remains a very “transactional” – or deal-making – nature to his security policy.
He said another “interesting” token about US alliances under Trump’s administration is – in addition to “transactional” deals – that there appears to be a “studied” lack of enthusiasm for American leadership.
America’s forward-leaning military posture in Asia is to reassure allies that America is a preeminent leader, but the current administration appears to be shying away from global leadership.
Instead, Limaye said the current US administration is more oriented towards making deals, solving problems they see, and framing it in a deal-making way.
For example, he said, the current administration has been accused by some parties of outsourcing their North Korea policy to China – one of its many transactional deals, typical of Trump’s approach to doing business and applying it to foreign policy.
There is also no talk of the US reducing its military presence in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, Pentagon in May endorsed Senator John McCain’s Asia Pacific Stability Initiative to invest an estimated US$7.5 billion to enhance US military power in the region. This could mean increased rotational forces, military exercises, and more missions in the region.
The Trump vs Obama approach.
The fundamental differences between the Obama and Trump re-balance to Asia is about underlying approaches, according to Limaye.
“In my estimation, President [Barack] Obama was ‘no surprises’, utter predictablility,” Limaye said, adding Obama was “fairly transparent”.
Unlike Trump, Obama had ‘de-linked’ issues and China is a great case in point: the US could disagree with China on the East China Sea and the South China Sea disputes but yet cooperated with Beijing on the Iranian nuclear deal and climate change.
Obama’s approach was also heavily personnel-based – there were clear people in charge, such as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. This saw the full stocking of the relevant bureaucracies involving defence, trade, and industry, among others.
On the other hand, Limaye said Trump offers a constant evolution of surprises. This makes it unclear as to who is really the one or ones doing the policy-making.
In Trump’s approach, everything is linked, as in the case of the US stopping short of labelling China a currency manipulator in seeking a resolution to its North Korea problem.
“Some of this (unpredictability) can be very useful in foreign affairs – very useful to put people off-balance, and useful to negotiate in ways that are unexpected,” Limaye said.
“From a foreign policy view, it can be useful if it does not become destabilising.”
Limaye pointed out there were very few personnel in key spots under Trump as much of the State Department and Department of Defence, the key government bodies handling foreign security and defence policy, remain unfilled.
What’s good for the US?
Structurally, US-China and US-Asia relations, Limaye said, are always going to be more managable than China-Asia or Intra-Asia relations.
The analyst said there is also the “unfortunate” public media narrative that the US is on the “out” in terms of its leadership because it was internally “messed up” and flailing, and therefore China “wins”.
“I don’t think it’s that crude, as China has its own set of problems in Asia, and the US has its own challenges.”
Limaye said contrary to these narratives, the US is in no way declining in material, military or economic sense.
“It is still the engine of economic growth, and this is not a patriotic statement. It’s just the analytical data that says, ‘look where the money goes?’ Follow the money.
“The money goes to the US because this is where the rate of return is, this is where people would put it in banks, this is where you’ll get capital, this is where you get venture, this is where you get technology, and treasury bills.”
Limaye also said the US remains a model to Asian countries:
“In part, because China has the nine dash line as a historical claim (over the South China Sea), part because China has a new security concept, partly because of the very active geopolitics that sees China rising very rapidly, and therefore causes concern (among Asian countries).”
Problems for America’s “leadership” in the region
There is also concern among Asian governments over whether the US is interested to continue exerting its leadership in the region.
“Because contrary to the narrative and the zeitgeist, Asian governments worry about the supply of American leadership,” Limaye said.
“They (Asian governments) resist certain things, they don’t like certain things, they can think we (the US) are overexpectant on demanding this and that, but an absence… of the United States concerns them more.”
This nervousness is compounded by the Trump administration’s absence of a clear strategy for the region.
“They have not issued a document or speech that lays out principles on their approach and this is very different from the Obama team which… laid out a whole bunch of things,” Limaye said.
Limaye said another concern is that the US is leading its foreign policy based on China and North Korea – that the two countries are animating the US policy rather than its Asia policy addressing the issue of China and North Korea.
Finally, the US-China relationship is considered “too big to fail”, as neither China, the US or the international system can afford to have a major “collapse”, or have it end up in calamity.
“The consequences both direct and indirect are massive,” Limaye said.
So will there be differences? Limaye asks. Yes, lots of them. Is China’s position behaviour concerning in many ways? Yes it is, too. And resolving these differences is also a long process.
“There is no end state to international relations, you don’t get to a place, you just keep working on it,” Limaye said.