Donald Trump and the Relative Decline of US Power in Asia

Donald Trump and the Relative Decline of US Power in Asia

Originally published on Internationale Politik Quarterly




A second Trump administration would inevitably impact US relations with Asia, but it would largely only accelerate existing trends.

The United States’ allies in Asia are gripped by the fear of abandonment, but fear does not always produce a rational or practical response. When a kangaroo standing on the road sees car headlights, it either freezes or hops around aimlessly. The US’ Asian allies, too, are frozen with panic about the possible return of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Either that, or they are taking urgent steps to redouble their partnership with Washington. 

However, there are few signs of willingness to grapple with the full consequences of the US’ decline as an Asian power. So deep is reliance on the US, and so unfamiliar are the alternatives, that there is an almost complete refusal to look the future in the face. Unfortunately, collisions between cars and kangaroos are typically fatal for the kangaroo. America’s Asian allies need to take urgent action to avoid becoming roadkill. 

So dominant is Trump in the popular imagination that the specter of his return overwhelms consideration of deeper trends in the US’ Asian position, trends which long predate him and will outlive him. Trump is surely the most famous person in the world. Given the ubiquity of modern communications technology, it is almost impossible to switch off the news cycle now, and therefore impossible to escape Trump. But the Trump phenomenon alone is not what Asian allies should worry about, and they should certainly not assume that, if he is elected, all they need to do is survive his four-year term before things return to “normal.” 

Deep shifts in the status of the United States as Asia’s hegemon have been evident since the end of the Cold War. Over the succeeding three decades, Asia has witnessed a relative decline in American power and an absolute decline in American resolve. For Asia, Trump is not a disruptor or a revolutionary. He is an accelerant.

China Is Growing Faster

Let’s begin with the relative decline in American power. It is important to stress the word “relative” here because the US continues to grow as an economic and military power. Despite setbacks such as the global financial crisis and the pandemic, US economic fundamentals remain strong. In fact, the US suffered far worse crises in the 20th century —including the Great Depression and two world wars—yet still emerged as by far the leading economy in the world. We should therefore assume it will also be able to weather future shocks while continuing to grow its wealth. In turn, this wealth will allow the US to continue funding the world’s most powerful military force. 

But although the US continues to grow, China has grown much faster. It is now the biggest economy in the world and is building a military to match; the world has not witnessed military modernization of this scale and speed since World War II.  China’s ambitions have grown along with its wealth; it wants to be the leading power in Asia, and perhaps the dominant one, which means displacing the US. 

This shouldn’t surprise us. No nation of China’s economic status will submit to being subordinate to a foreign power. So, if the US wants to maintain its status, it will need to win the biggest geopolitical contest it has ever engaged in. As Rush Doshi, a China expert who served on US President Joe Biden’s National Security Council from February 2021 to April 2024 and is now a Senior Fellow for China and Indo-Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), observed in his 2021 book, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order ,“For more than a century, no US adversary or coalition of adversaries has reached 60 per cent of US GDP … yet, this is a milestone that China itself quietly reached as early as 2014.”

This is why the question of American resolve is so important. To stage a competition on that scale, the US needs to be highly motivated, but there are reasons to doubt Washington’s political will. 

Actions Fail to Match Rhetoric

It is now routine for political leaders from both parties to describe China as America’s biggest adversary. The Pentagon calls China’s military its “pacing threat.” Yet America’s actions don’t conform with its rhetoric. Most importantly, the US has entirely failed to match China’s military expansion. Such is the scale of Beijing’s rise as a military power that if the US were truly committed to this contest, it would have moved its European forces to Asia long ago. But there is no prospect of this happening, and no sign of reinforcements from elsewhere. In fact, the US has barely expanded its military presence in Asia since the end of the Cold War. 

We should spare a moment to mention North Korea, which in its own way is also challenging America’s status in Asia. North Korea has been a nuclear-armed state since the 2010s but may now boast an operational ICBM; that is, a ballistic missile that can reach the continental United States. If it develops enough ICBMs, it will have what strategists call a guaranteed second-strike capability, meaning that it will be capable of hitting US cities with nuclear weapons even if the US tries to disarm it with a surprise attack first. 

This changes the fundamentals of America’s alliance with South Korea because it again raises the question of US resolve. Is Washington prepared to risk the destruction of one or more of its cities to meet its alliance commitment to Seoul? The answer is almost certainly “no” because South Korea’s security is simply not important enough to justify such a sacrifice. Inevitably, other US allies will ask whether they are in the same position. Are they important enough for the US to take big risks on their behalf? Thus, the credibility of America’s alliance commitments erodes. 

Protecting the Status Quo

Since these trends have been apparent for decades, shouldn’t US allies have responded by now? If anything, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. Australia, for instance, has signed the AUKUS agreement with the US and the UK to build eight nuclear-powered submarines for its navy. It has also agreed to host US bombers and submarines on its territory. The Philippines has expanded its military basing agreement with the US. The US and South Korea established a new nuclear consultative group to reinforce America’s deterrent. The US and Japan have just announced the biggest upgrade to their alliance since it was formed 60 years ago.

But free riding is rational. Why would these allies take the riskier and more expensive path of defending themselves independently if the US is willing to do it for them? Also, US alliance arrangements are a kind of subsidy, and subsidies create powerful interest groups dedicated to protecting the status quo. By contrast, no such pressure group loses out from these subsidies, so there is little political incentive to reduce them. Lastly, these moves to reinforce the US alliance structure might be an effort by nervous allies to further tie the US down to the region.

Underlying all these efforts is a shared hope: that the US will be prepared to go to war with China to ensure the security of its allies. But even if the arguments made above about declining US power and resolve are not persuasive, the Ukraine war should prompt a reconsideration of this hope. The US has been prepared to send arms to Ukraine, impose heavy sanctions, and offer diplomatic and intelligence support. But the sobering reality—especially for Taiwan—is that when a nuclear-armed great power invaded its smaller neighbor, the US was not willing to commit its own military forces to the fight. 

A Multipolar Regional Order

The long-term direction of movement, then, is away from US leadership and toward a multipolar regional order. China will be the leader; that much is certain. But whether it becomes the dominant power is still unsettled and is something that all Asian countries can have a role in deciding. For America’s allies and partners in Asia, the comfort of post-Cold War US hegemony is over, and they cannot bring it back. But that doesn’t mean China will be the new hegemon. China will mostly have its way with smaller countries on its borders; Beijing is already establishing a sphere of influence on continental Southeast Asia. But Asia is mostly a maritime realm, and that favors the countries that want to constrain China because power is difficult to project over the vast spaces of maritime Asia. 

We may thus see the slow development of competing spheres of influence in Asia, geographic sub-regions in which one great power dominates and others do not interfere. The US is the obvious leader for one such sphere in North Asia, but its commitment to maintain such an order is questionable, so at the very least, Japan and South Korea will have to do more heavy lifting, including perhaps by building their own nuclear weapons. South Korea is the most likely candidate because there is strong public support for an independent deterrent, and Seoul has already developed strategic weapons systems (such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles) designed to carry nuclear weapons. Indeed, if there is one US ally in Asia which has not behaved like a startled kangaroo in the headlights, it is South Korea, which has steadily developed more capable deterrence forces that don’t rely on the US. 

The most promising path toward peace in Asia is a balance of power based on spheres of influence, and that is the direction the region appears to be drifting toward. Without ever formally conceding its claim to regional hegemony, the US has implicitly accepted that hegemony is unsustainable. What remains far from settled, however, is the question of boundaries: where does one side’s sphere of influence end and another’s begin? Any discussion of Asian geopolitics inevitably comes back to Taiwan, and this is where the question of boundaries is most clearly in dispute. To whose sphere of influence does Taiwan belong? The answer to that question will determine the fate of the region, and the safety of the world. 


Areas of expertise: Australian foreign and defence policy, China’s military forces, US defence and foreign policy, drones and other military technology. Also, trends in global democracy.