President Donald Trump's recent swing through Asia revealed the conundrum in his foreign policy. Reassurances about American staying power came with no coherent regional vision; calls for unity on North Korea were drowned out by his blunt nationalism on trade.
Repeating Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength" mantra, Trump now utters comforting alliance refrains. Long gone are the demands for Japan and South Korea to pay the cost of stationing US troops there.
In Seoul he hailed an alliance "forged in the crucible of war and strengthened by the trials of history". Referring to the threat from Pyongyang, he even invoked the Munich myth of appeasement, saying that the US and its allies had learnt before the "high cost of weakness". Here was a Cold War-type call to stand together, to act as one. In Tokyo he spoke of a relationship with "one of our closest and most cherished allies". Twelve months ago, allies could have only dreamt Trump would utter such words.
Most surprising was the softening of the President's stance on China. Before his arrival in Beijing, press reports suggested the emergence of a more hawkish China policy in Trump's Washington. Instead, he dumped on his predecessors for allowing China to take advantage of the United States.
Seduced by power
An easy explanation for this meeker line is to suggest that Trump was duchessed at sunset by Chinese flattery in the Forbidden city. There may be something to this. Trump is drawn to power, seduced by it. But the hard truth remains: even if a more hawkish US China policy does emerge, how will it extract real results on intellectual property, tariffs, the South China Sea, and, crucially, North Korea? In Beijing, Trump made no headway on anything fundamental in US-China relations.
Some analysts bemoan Trump's lack of an American grand strategy for Asia in the mould of Obama's "pivot". They will be waiting a long time for this administration to produce an Asian doctrine.
Thus his "Indo-Pacific dream" invokes not a regional collective but a "constellation" of sovereign and independent nations – as Trump put it, "each its own bright star, satellites to none". He talks of nations being "rooted" in their own history, "self-reliant", cherishing "home". Trump's speeches on this tour were, in essence, about what Asian countries are doing for themselves. In very different circumstances, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon also gave expression to this narrative.
Failing to drive agenda
Trump's explicit rejection of multilateralism is no surprise – what's striking is that he did so at a forum dedicated to that very policy. It means that while America remains in Asia it is failing to drive the agenda: witness the resolve amongst other nations, Australia included, to push ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership despite the absence of the US.
Still, the hankering for more exclusive regional clubs remains. Hyperventilating from some analysts over the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, is a case in point. Senior officials from these countries did meet on the margins of the ASEAN summit in Manila, but DFAT's statement after the event was little more than persiflage. What does this demarche really amount to?
The Quad remains one of the most poorly explained concepts in recent strategic memory. Conceived by Japan in the dying days of neo-conservatism under George W. Bush and John Howard, it expired only a year later when Kevin Rudd withdrew in deference to Chinese sensitivities. Recently, its more gung-ho proponents have declared their hand, outlining a Quad agenda that amounts to virtual Cold War-style containment of China. Some see it responding to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.
The chances of the Quad developing into an Asian NATO are fantasy. At present, it stands as little more than a diplomatic carcass hastily exhumed from the graveyard of Asian regional architecture. Some think it answers Trump's call for allies to do more, and that it keeps a waning US engaged in the region.
Yet questions remain. Not only about the Quad's credibility as a counterweight to China, but how it overcomes a complex array of competing national interests among the four: over border disputes, trade and maritime tensions. For its part, the US, and this president in particular, can turn on a dime, potentially leaving Australia in the lurch. It has happened before.