Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Donald Trump’s message for Asia

The President appears to be learning that whatever leverage the US has with China is derivative of our alliances and partnerships in the region.

Photo: White House
Photo: White House

What will Donald Trump's message to Asia be when he travels from Hawaii to Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines from 3 to 14 November? It is safe to say that even his closest advisors don't know the answer to that question, which has host governments from Tokyo to Manila a bit anxious.

But there are also clear strategic themes emerging from the Administration in the lead-up to the visit that offer a starting point for assessing what the generally capable national security team around the President hopes will be the message.

That broad strategic framework was previewed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a speech at CSIS on 18 October. Tillerson argued that the Trump Administration seeks a 'free and open Indo-Pacific' with a clear emphasis on Japan, Australia and India and open scepticism about China's trustworthiness. The concept builds on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 'strategic diamond' connecting the four major maritime democracies in the region, but has even deeper roots in US strategic thinking going back at least to Alfred Thayer Mahan's writings in the late 19th century on the need for an Anglo-American-Japanese-German axis to protect the maritime approaches to the US against potential continental hegemonic aspirants (Germany has been replaced by India and the UK by Australia, but you get the idea).

George Kennan, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and, I would argue, Hillary Clinton all drew on the same maritime strategy, and the approach certainly leverages Trump's own strong personal relationships with Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The concept also offers something of a counterpoint to Xi Jinping's strategically ambitious if economically questionable Belt and Road Initiative.

At the same time, the free and open Indo-Pacific framework will prompt some difficult questions for Mr Trump in Asia. Most obvious is the question of how it is possible to advance a free and open region when the President himself has rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and appears poised to torpedo the US-Korea free trade agreement at any moment. If Prime Ministers Turnbull and Abe are clever, they will judo the free and open Indo-Pacific concept into a discussion on the need for rule-making and eventually something like TPP, but Mr Trump will smell this coming and the conversation could be difficult.

The other questions regard the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia, perennial problem areas in a strategy focused on maritime allies and partners. Kennan championed a Mahanian maritime approach in 1948 and Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously codified it when he publicly drew the US defensive line around Japan and the Philippines in a press conference in January 1950. The US subsequently lost tens of thousands of troops trying to stop communist invasions of South Korea and Vietnam, both on the wrong side of Acheson's line.

The world is rightly focused on what Donald Trump will do and say about North Korea. The Administration deserves more credit than it has received for introducing sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea in September and for demonstrating a readiness for military options to defend US interests and allies against the growing North Korean threat.

However, the President is undermining those efforts and longer-term US strategic interests by aggravating US-ROK relations. It is proper and necessary to warn of either defensive war in response to North Korean aggression or pre-emptive war should North Korea be preparing nuclear strikes. However, the threat of preventive war to stop North Korean programs should diplomacy fail is neither credible nor helpful at a time when the US should be reassuring allies like South Korea rather than terrifying them. Beijing thinks South Korea is in play, hence Chinese pressure on Seoul to reject THAAD ballistic-missile defence deployments and, before that, to endorse Xi Jinping's April 2014 vision in Shanghai of an Asia with 'no blocs' (meaning no alliances). Trump's attacks on the US-Korea free trade agreement and hyped-up rhetoric on North Korea do not help disabuse Xi of his assumptions, mistaken though they are, about South Korea's longer-term strategic trajectory.

The Trump strategy for Southeast Asia presents an even bigger enigma, though the President does deserve credit for traveling to Vietnam and the Philippines and for successfully hosting a series of Southeast Asian leaders in Washington (just as he deserves criticism for the apparent green light he has given to the anti-democratic moves of some of the same leaders). Mr Trump will skip the East Asia Summit, which means he will be spared a series of horrifically boring set-piece speeches, but the move is only raising further questions about how the new Administration sees the role of ASEAN. Many in Southeast Asia worry that the White House Bannon-whisperer Stephen Miller is quietly preparing a speech trashing multilateralism in the region. This could be wrong, but Chinese power and Southeast Asian doubt about US commitment both abhor a vacuum.

And China? Judging from Xi Jinping's triumphalism at the 19th Party Congress, the Trump-Xi summit in Beijing will probably be tense, at least behind the scenes. The White House has rejected Chinese pressure to issue a joint communique and senior officials in Tokyo and other allied capitals are somewhat less nervous about a Sino-US condominium emerging, as seemed more likely when the President's senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner was playing a prominent role in the relationship.

In any case, the President appears to be learning that whatever leverage the US has with China is derivative of our alliances and partnerships in the region. To get China right, Rich Armitage and Joe Nye declared in a 2007 CSIS report, you have to get Asia right. We will soon see how well the free and open Indo-Pacific framework survives first contact with the region, and with the President's twitter account.

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