Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme

This paper reviews the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia and considers its status today under President Trump. It also examines the roles of America’s closest friends in the Asia-Pacific – Japan, South Korea and Australia - and China's regional agenda.

US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo AbeUS President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before bilateral meetings in February 2017. Photo by: Chip Somodevilla/Staff/Getty Images

Summary

  • While the Trump administration is still in its early stages, it is not too soon to ask some tough questions about the direction the US is taking (or not taking) towards key regions such as the Asia-Pacific. Will the new president and his team continue to build on the Obama administration’s effort to focus economic, diplomatic and military resources towards the region, or will they opt for a different path? In spite of some signals of reassurance from the Trump team, the answer to this question is unknown, which in turn raises many more questions. What will define the US’s future engagement in the Asia-Pacific? What roles will there be for allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia? And how will persistent security challenges affect the US alliance system?
  • Both before and since his inauguration, Donald Trump has questioned the value of alliance relationships with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Prior to becoming president, he threatened economic warfare with China and challenged long-standing diplomatic understandings between Washington and Beijing. On his first full day in office, President Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal – in a 180-degree reversal from his predecessor’s policies and a major blow to strategic US economic leadership in the Asia-Pacific. From a broader perspective, calls for ‘America first’ and economic nationalism are at odds with former president Barack Obama’s previous efforts to engage the region. Through these and other actions, President Trump has sown doubt about the direction of future US engagement in the region.
  • So far, the president has not acted on his statements about Japan, South Korea, Australia and China. His administration has sought to reassure allies and appears to have put relations with China on a more stable footing. But developments in the region are not standing still. Shortand long-term trends mean that the Asia-Pacific is going to get more, not less, challenging for the US and its allies and partners in the future.
  • Looking ahead, the US confronts three big concerns with regard to its Asia-Pacific strategy. First, the administration needs to deliver a detailed, nuanced, multifaceted and high-level statement, reflective of regional complexities, about the US’s overall vision towards this part of the world. A second challenge concerns personnel, including the lack of sufficient numbers of senior, experienced policy managers across the top of the administration; the pervasive mistrust between the president and the public services, particularly the intelligence community; and the disarray and divisiveness that have characterized relationships between Trump’s senior advisers. A third major challenge concerns developments out in the region itself, and particularly the complex and difficult issues raised by North Korea and China.
  • Other US allies around the world similarly feel many of the challenges affecting US policy towards the Asia-Pacific. Comments made by Trump as candidate, president-elect and president have called into question the value he places on relations with European allies. Trump has also appeared sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, raising doubts as to whether he would stand up to Russian territorial and political encroachments against a democratic and free Europe. America’s European allies, like its Asia-Pacific partners, are still left wondering about US leadership, engagement and commitment at a time of increasing uncertainty in global affairs.
  • European powers should invest further resources in developing their own economic and security relationships in the Asia-Pacific. This can be done via ongoing relationships with the US and/or US partners in the region, such as through the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence cooperation, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Like the US’s allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific, the UK and other European powers can spread their risk by developing security and economic ties with both the US and China. In doing so, US allies in Europe as well as in the Asia-Pacific will have the best chance of hedging against the worst while aiming for the best when it comes to the new US administration and its still-uncertain approach towards the Asia-Pacific and the world.