Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The three factors that will drive US policy in Asia

Hard power at the service of America is now the centrepiece of US international policy.

Photo courtesy US Department of Defense
Photo courtesy US Department of Defense

In the 10 days since his inauguration President Trump has sought to convey the appearance of a strong and energetic leader committed to delivering exactly what he promised. Executive orders have come thick and fast covering most of the major election issues including immigration bans, building the wall and withdrawing the US from the TPP. This flurry of activity, alongside the appointments to cabinet and the broader policy forays of the transition period, mean we can now begin to form a clearer picture of how the Trump administration is likely to approach the world and what it will mean for Asia.

Even after this blizzard of activity it remains difficult to speak in specific terms about putative Trump Asia policy. The new president lacks the technocrat’s love of detail, and nor does he appear to have a clear overarching strategy or worldview. There do, however, appear to be three main elements that will be at the heart of US policy in Asia.

The first is a nationalistic and narrowly transactional approach to America’s international role. The liberal idea that the US would provide public goods which deliver benefits to the region as a whole, such as military primacy and open access to US markets, is absent. A much more realist sensibility prevails in which US advantage - narrowly understood - is the arbiter of action.

Second, military power is seen as the most important tool of US statecraft. Under Obama, Washington had a broad-ranging conception of US power and influence. This was most clearly articulated in the old administration’s embrace of the three 'ds' of American power: diplomacy, defence and development. Combating threats, whether Chinese challenges to US dominance or ISIS, entailed a comprehensive approach involving multiple facets of state power, both hard and soft elements. No such sophistication appears evident for the Trump administration. Hard power at the service of America is the centrepiece of US international policy. As a result, Trump will begin a significant capital investment in US military force that will give it a scale unseen since the Cold War.

Third, Trump puts an extremely high value on being unpredictable. In part this stems from his deal-making background. Negotiators are thought to have an advantage if the other side cannot work out what their rival wants. But it also stems from his (limited) political experience. Trump's electoral success was due to not just his remarkable ability to connect with voters but also his ability to thrive in chaos and to keep opponents off-balance through unpredictable and erratic behaviour. US policy in Asia, as elsewhere, will be deliberately unpredictable. Orthodoxies will be challenged and nothing will be off the table. As we’ve seen so far in relation to Taiwan among others the value of being hard to predict outweighs the risk of collateral damage.

So what does this mean for Asia? The self-styled smart take on Trump was that the elites took him literally but not seriously while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, we now need to take trump literally and seriously.

For Asia the most important element in that campaign was Trump's targeting of China. Four of the seven steps in candidate Trump’s plan to reinvigorate the US economy entailed attacking China. Most analysts discounted the probability of this occurring. A trade war made no economic sense and astute China analysts know the accusations of currency manipulation are several years out of date. Experience so far shows that we should expect Trump to follow through on his promises. In part, this is based on behaviour to date but also because the most influential voices in the administration in this area appear not to be the cabinet secretaries who have relatively mainstream views, such as Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin and Defense secretary James Mattis, but the America First ideologues Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro.

The more surprising feature of the transition and early administration Asia policy has been the matching of economic nationalism with more strategic considerations. This first appeared with the calculated cocking of the snook to Beijing by taking Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulatory phone call. It was then ratcheted up during Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's testimony to the Senate. According to a 'top Trump source' cited by reporter Mike Allen in his Axios AM newsletter, Tillerson's South China Sea comments 'were the most important part of the testimony' (hat tip Bill Bishop’s Sinocism newsletter). It's hard to avoid the conclusion that China is likely to be militarily challenged in the South China Sea.

Openly questioning the bedrock of US-China policy over the past four decades sends a clear message, whether intended or not: no orthodoxy or traditional policy in the region can be taken for granted. This means not only is China uncertain about what Washington might do. Allies and friends face a very different partner in which guarantees now seem a little more uncertain.

Sino-American competition is going to morph fairly rapidly into contestation that is highly militarised. It is quite probable that the nascent dynamics of an Asian arms race will become an overt part of regional international politics. This will be exacerbated as uncertainty about US behaviour will lead all, allies and foes alike, to take steps to become more militarily self-reliant. The instrumental conception of interests is likely to mean allies with a significant US presence, such as South Korea and Japan, will come under significant pressure to contribute more to their own defence and to advancing American interests. The US is going to push hard to get allies to do more and pay for more. Allies and partners are going to face very difficult choices in the coming four years.

As Asia comes to terms with a highly nationalistic president who openly embraces a neo-Nixonian unpredictability and, it is fast becoming clear, meant much of what he said on the campaign trail, it is time to prepare for a region that will become a much more unstable and dangerous place.

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