Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Don't give up on the US in Asia just yet

Under Trump we're likely to see a recalibrated US offshore balancing in Asia that won't mean either careless provocation of China or a total US drawdown.

Don't give up on the US in Asia just yet
Published 16 Nov 2016 

Contrary to Hugh White’s argument that we’re better off appeasing China than risk going to war with Donald Trump, we are likely to see a recalibrated version of US offshore balancing in Asia under Trump that will impose added burdens on allies, but will not mean either the careless provocation of China, or a total US drawdown in the region.

My crystal ball went on the blink during the election campaign, but there are good reasons to believe that President Trump will be a different proposition to candidate Trump on US foreign relations at least. It’s still a little early to start building bunkers in the back yard, or to just give up on a regional order that so clearly benefits Australia (and, by the way, China too).

What we witnessed in the US election was an extension of the Brexit backlash against the political establishment, primarily due to deep unhappiness among many voters with globalisation and in particular the progressive liberal values that have shaped its meanings and effects to date. Where this ‘turning back the clock’ process is going to end and how far it will go in changing political values and priorities in the liberal democracies of the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere is very unclear. What does seem very likely is that this fundamental shift in popular thinking about what liberal democracies do and represent has a way to go yet.

That said, even though the GOP went from widely predicted disaster and irrelevance to control of Congress and the White House quite literally overnight, it remains to be seen how well Trump and Republicans in Congress will get along. 

Given the large number of Republicans who refused to endorse Trump, and the others who endorsed him but nevertheless still oppose some of his wackier policy ideas, we could see either of the following play out: 

1. Trump’s populist ambitions are tamed and changed by the uncompromising and inflexible realities of Washington’s political establishment and bureaucracy. Trump would certainly not be the first president or prime minister to enter office with a swag of policies only to leave after a term or two with little to show for it.

2. Alternatively, a highly antagonistic relationship develops between Trump and Congress as he meets resistance, even from Republicans, on some of his more ‘courageous’ efforts at rewriting US policy, both domestic and foreign. Trump nevertheless insists on getting his way, citing his election mandate, but the Washington machine and its institutions become the mountain defying Mohammed. His administration is paralysed by Congressional intervention and bureaucratic stonewalling, his popularity wanes, and the Republican Party falls into disarray as internal divisions wreak havoc in both the Senate and the House. The GOP nightmare returns, in other words, via an unexpected route.

Election campaign Trump and President Trump may mean very different things in terms of actual governance and policy. But if we accept that at least some of Trump’s foreign policy ideas will survive the system, what does President Trump likely mean for Australia and Japan’s alliances with the US and their policies? The range of possibilities is immense, given the highly unorthodox character of Trump’s thinking, but here are three possible scenarios to consider.

1. First, as a result of Trump’s administration being largely absorbed by Washington’s version of the Borg, nothing much changes in terms of US alliance commitments or US foreign policy more broadly. Trump finds the conservative pushback too difficult to overcome, and/or is persuaded to be more conventional, and/or geo-political realities force him to change his thinking (e.g., Putin doesn’t play nice).

2. Trump imposes much stricter burden sharing requirements on US allies, which Australia and Japan (and probably South Korea) accept in order to satisfy Washington and keep the US engaged in the region. A big part of doing so, in addition to higher defence spending, is likely to involve further cross bracing between US alliance partners in the region, which translates into closer Australia-Japan security commitments and cooperation. As a big part of this recalibration, expect to see greater pressure from Washington for further alliance cross bracing among US allies, in particular between Australia and Japan, and also South Korea and Japan

Some combination of the aforementioned scenarios, contrary to some of the gloomier outlooks we’ve heard, is the most likely short-term outcome at least. Washington’s burden-sharing expectations already have been increasing for some time under Obama, and Clinton would have expected more from US allies too if elected. The question is really about how much allies will need to do, and the ways in which a Trump administration chooses to press the issue.

3. The third scenario, unlike the first two, is a fundamental departure from our traditional relationships, world view, and expectations, and unfortunately offers little or nothing in the way of an upside. In this world, Australia and Japan find Trump’s policies unacceptable for a wide range of possible reasons, and begin looking for ways to decrease their dependency on the US, or the US goes isolationist (very unlikely). This scenario could play out in all sorts of ways but would most likely reduce the prospects for closer security cooperation among US alliance partners. Australia, for example, may instead choose to make its political alignment in the region more ‘neutral’ by being more ‘flexible’ on its commitment to the existing order and its principles (such as freedom of navigation) so as to keep an increasingly emboldened, and economically even more important, China on side. This is the option Hugh White sees as preferable to backing and encouraging continued US balancing.

All of this is of course would be great news for Xi et al, who will attempt to exploit the weaker or withdrawn US commitment to increase China’s influence and further pressure states to bandwagon with it and/or mind their manners. China’s strategic goal of keeping the US and Japan out, the ASEAN countries (and Australia) down, and China on top would now be within Beijing’s grasp.

But this new ‘US-lite’ order would come at the cost of much greater risk, contrary to some expectations. Australia’s future relations with China now would be on whatever terms Beijing thought appropriate. Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, now live in a much more dangerous neighborhood and are compensating for the US security deficit by rapidly increasing their respective deterrence capabilities – with both China and North Korea in mind. Their defence buildup will include nuclear weapons if confidence in the US nuclear umbrella and alliances evaporates. Northeast Asia, becomes, as a consequence, a far more dangerous region without the US acting in its traditional postwar balancing role.

The moral of the story here for voters (and China’s leaders) looking for change is a simple one: be careful what you wish for!

Photo: Flickr/US Air Force

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