Adam Ward
Deputy Director, Chatham House
Whether by design or distraction, Donald Trump is reshaping America’s role and changing the geopolitical outlook of the region.
On the newsstand in Beijing, magazines feature Donald Trump Xi Jinping. Photo: Getty Images.On the newsstand in Beijing, magazines feature Donald Trump Xi Jinping. Photo: Getty Images.

The summit between US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping at Mar-A-Lago on 6-7 April was never likely to produce a new strategic vision for bilateral relations. Such a thing has eluded the two countries since the end of the Cold War, which supplied a common enemy in the Soviet Union.

Instead, the last three decades have chiefly been about managing the relationship, with growing economic interdependence sitting alongside geopolitical differences. Last week’s summit showed that some of this dynamic is set to continue under President Trump. Despite encouraging signals on trade cooperation, Trump’s authorization of a missile strike in Syria in the middle of the summit clearly highlights the gulf between the two countries’ leaderships on how to handle global security issues.

But while some of this is familiar, it is already apparent that Trump’s atypical approach is shifting the calculation in the Asia-Pacific, with major consequences for regional security.

A coherent policy?

As with so many issues, it has been difficult to find any coherent policy from Trump towards China. He has vacillated on some of his tough talk with regards to tariffs on Chinese exports and the ‘one China policy’ towards Taiwan. But the deployment of a carrier strike group towards the Korean peninsula suggests he may be more willing to follow through with his suggestion that the US could take unilateral action against North Korea in the absence of a stronger line from Beijing.

This incoherence extends to the wider region – for instance, following Trump’s disavowal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Japan saw as a key means of making US regional engagement more sustainable, Defense Secretary James Mattis calmed Tokyo by restating more traditional sentiments.

It is unclear exactly how much of Trump’s actions are calculated, how much are bluster and how much are simply the maximalist demands of a ‘negotiator’. But right now, America’s Asia policy is boiling down to part absenteeism, part assertive revisionism. In the long term, this seems likely to produce four consequences.

A consequential approach

The first will be that both China and Japan will move more quickly to act as conventional ‘great powers’. China long conducted itself with an ostentatious humility, deliberately contrasting itself with historical examples of ‘disruptive’ rising powers. This has already begun to sit more and more awkwardly with its accumulation of power – especially its growing military might.

Under Xi, China has articulated a ‘dream’ of rejuvenation, moved  dramatically to consolidate claims in the South China Sea, discarded its reassuring deference towards smaller Southeast Asian states, conceived a bold Belt and Road Initiative that would pull a sprawl of countries closer into its orbit, emerged as a supplier of economic institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, sought to raise its standing in global economic institutions and, with Xi’s 2017 speech at Davos, presented itself as a lynchpin of globalization. None of these things are in themselves surprising or unusual. But they are testament to a new level of ambition and confidence.

Japan’s geopolitical status has long been cramped by its sense of its historical experiences, constitutional restrictions and the assurance of American protection. Each of these is still a strong influence on its foreign policy, but under Shinzo Abe, a new strategy of hard-power realism is gradually gaining traction.

Under the triple pressures of China, North Korea and Trump, this will only accelerate. Tokyo has been alarmed by the vigour with which China has pressed its claims in the East China Sea. North Korea’s provocations have become both more escalatory and frequent. While Tokyo will welcome Trump’s toughening line on Pyongyang, it will worry that his unilateralist instincts might close off policy coordination on an issue so vital to Japan’s safety. Given these mounting threats and unravelling of old certainties, Tokyo knows it will have to do more to protect itself and advance its interests.

Second, as China and Japan spread their wings, Asia will become more obviously multipolar, featuring increased diplomatic competition, a weakening of regional institutions and greater reliance on military deterrence in the avoidance of conflict. Because the big powers cannot agree, Asia lacks strong security institutions.

It also suffers from the anomaly that the most developed regional architecture, the ASEAN Regional Forum, is notionally led by the smallest powers. ASEAN’s members have traditionally tended to hedge between the US and China and succeeded in avoiding exclusive alliances. But in an Asia of multiple assertive powers, hedging will become more convoluted and riskier. China already raised eyebrows among ASEAN members in 2016 by appearing to force members to take sides on the South China Sea disputes. Deprived of decisive regional institutions, Asia’s national energies and budgets are being poured into competitive military build-ups that are intended to provide a deterrent but are fuelling a cycle of insecurity.

Third, while this makes achieving solutions to major security challenges like North Korea and South and East China Sea disputes more urgent, it will also make the task harder, as they will be filtered through competing visions for regional order, the increasingly nationalist demands of Asian publics and widely differing views on the concept of freedom of navigation and the role of outside arbitration in maritime disputes.

Finally, extra-regional powers such as the EU (and a post-Brexit Britain), who have long been used to deferring to US leadership on Asia, will have to take a stronger practical interest – at precisely the time when their bandwith is sorely overtaxed by their own problems. And as they strive for stronger economic ties to Asia, competing regional demands for commitment and clarity on security issues will become more insistent, and harder to reconcile.

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