Trump in Asia: From Pivot to Pirouette

Donald Trump is torn between two ambitions.  One is to challenge the conventions that have underpinned U.S. foreign policy by replacing a commitment to global leadership with a determination to put America first.  The other is to undo the legacy of Barack Obama.  Neither ambition is easy to accomplish; taken together, the two ambitions constitute an enormous task.  Sometimes they overlap.  Sometimes they point in different directions.  And sometimes they interact in a dizzying manner.  Trump’s policy toward Asia is of the dizzying sort.  Where Barack Obama pivoted to Asia from the Middle in a manner that both confirmed and defied U.S. foreign policy convention, Trump seems to twirl around Asia in an accelerating pirouette.

Establishing a baseline is important to understanding Trump’s dilemma.  Traditionally, U.S. policy toward Asia has focused on securing Japan and South Korea while containing North Korea and China.  U.S. policy has also sought to build strategic relationships with the countries of Southeast Asia in the service of those primary objectives.  This policy underpinned U.S. global leadership by embedding the the United States in the Asian balance of power.

This Asia policy has had varying levels of priority depending upon the administration and the political circumstances.  At times, as during the Truman, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, U.S. policy toward Asia has been a focus of attention.  Other times, however, as during the Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, regions like Europe and the Middle East have been given higher priority.  When Barack Obama came into office, for example, the Middle East was a clear area of concern.  This was a legacy of policies initiated by George W. Bush.  Obama inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as deeply troubled relations with much of the Muslim world.

Given the rise of China in the 1990s and 2000s, however, Asia could not long be ignored.  Obama worried that too much American blood and treasure was being squandered in the Middle East where it would not make much strategic difference.  Hence his administration sought to redirect American attention to Asia, where it could have a greater influence on the future world order.

As part of this pivot, the Obama Administration sought to reassure traditional allies that the U.S. could maintain its regional security commitments.  Obama strove to build new economic relationships with the countries of Southeast Asia to underpin U.S. security leadership.  And he worked to cement a trans-Pacific Partnership that would give the United States a permanent advantage in terms of trade and finance in the region.

This pivot was less conventional than it sounds.  Obama left a significant vacuum in the Middle East and Central Asia.  His administration also failed to respond effectively to China’s efforts to build strategic partnerships of its own — particularly with Russia, but also with countries along the historic routes that connect Asia to Europe.  China’s success with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its Belt and Road Initiative are two illustrations.  These errors and omission attracted criticism from supporters as well as opponents.  In turn this left an opening for a new administration to do something different and perhaps even more effective.

The Trump Administration’s policies have failed to take advantage of the opportunity to redress the failings of Obama’s pivot to Asia.  On the contrary, Trump has thrown out many of the best of Obama’s initiatives while at the same time reinforcing the worst of the Obama Administration’s mistakes.  Trump started off by antagonizing China about the status of Taiwan and then reversed course under the first signs of Chinese opposition.  The Trump Administration also unilaterally rejected the trans-Pacific partnership that the Obama Administration negotiated — loosening relations with the countries of Southeast and Northeast Asia while creating an opening for China in a single move.

Since that beginning, the Trump Administration has oscillated its positions in ways that can only be described as confusing.  He threatened to label China a currency manipulator, then he withdrew that accusation, and then he reasserted the claim that China uses its currency in a protectionist manner (without using the language that would require action under current legislation).  Some of this change of heart may be due to the Trump Administration’s hope that China can somehow help contain North Korea; some is likely a result of a growing sense of realism within Trump’s economic policy team.

Whatever the explanation, the cognitive dissonance created by the policy has increased continuously since the start of Trump’s presidency.  That dissonance culminated when Trump congratulated Chinese leader Xi Jingping for getting such a good deal for his country while at the same time criticizing his predecessors (and Barack Obama in particular) for failing to stand up to China sooner.  No U.S. president has ever congratulated a foreign leader in such a manner.

Trump’s policy toward North Korea has been even more confusing.  The consistent line within the Trump administration is that North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear capability and that the North Korean leader, Kim Jung Eun, cannot be trusted.  Such views were also held by previous administrations and so were largely expected.  What is harder to understand is why the Trump administration keeps challenging the North Korean regime and its leader with ever greater and more personal provocations.

Such provocations do not make Japan or South Korea more secure; they put them more at risk as North Korea looks for ways to save face.  Worse, the provocations do not seem to be working at deterring the North Koreans from their nuclear ambitions.  On the contrary, they have only resulted in increasing and ever more personal counter measures leading up to North Korea’s recent demonstration that it has the ballistic missile capability to reach targets in the United States.

Even stranger, at the same time that the U.S. President is engaged in personal exchanges with the North Korean leadership, his administration is flirting with trade policy measures to force concessions from Japan and South Korea, including threats to withdraw from the Korea-US Free-trade Area.  This creates the impression that the United States is not committed to the security of the region.  Rather, as the Trump Administration keeps insisting, its commitments are first and foremost to promote a very narrow conception of American self-interest.

The problem for the Trump Administration is that American interests are systemic and global rather than sector- or country-specific.  Of course, we can always find some firm that must adjust because of trade with a specific competitor; the point is that all firms will have to adjust if global trading relations deteriorate overall.

The more Trump focuses on very narrow conceptions of American self-interest, the more he creates problems for the United States that only cooperation with other countries can resolve.  That is why the Trump Administration finds itself gyrating between praise and criticism of the major countries in Asia; it is why the Trump Administration has failed to create an effective response to China’s One-Belt, One-Road initiative; and it is why the Trump Administration, like the Obama Administration before it, finds itself mired in both Asia and the Middle East.

The only way the Trump Administration can escape from its whirlingly inconsistent Asian policy is to accept the underlying logic behind American global leadership.  Multilateral relationships and alliance building do not come at the expense of American interests; they are the fabric within which American interests are woven.  The Obama Administration could have done some parts of its foreign policy better and the conventions of American foreign policy should not be taken for granted.  But a policy of disruption is not a coherent alternative.

This piece was originally published in Italian by Il Regno. For the published version, go here.