International relations, National security | Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World, Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia

7 November 2017

With a North Korean nuclear crisis and a newly strengthened Chinese president, Trump’s tour of Asia will be seen as a crucial test of US commitment to the region, Stephen Nagy writes.

Nearly a year has passed since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. At home, his presidency is being severely challenged by deep political divisions between parties and voters, Special Prosecutor Mueller’s investigation into potential Russian collusion in his campaign, and a noteworthy failure to accomplish any major legislative achievements.

The domestic political civil war has dramatically weakened the Trump administration’s ability to project a presidency that is strong, strategic and supported by its citizens abroad. This has been magnified by Twitter diplomacy and insensitive remarks about foreign policy that contradict and at times undermine the ability of his top officials to execute sound policy.

Trump’s visit to East Asia comes at a time when the region’s security is being undermined by North Korea’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and nuclear development. A nuclear North challenges the existing security framework, tests the limits of US commitment to its treaty allies of South Korea and Japan, and is compelling policymakers in Seoul and Tokyo to consider the extent they are willing to push back against Pyongyang’s nuclear brinksmanship.

Reintroducing a strategic nuclear deterrent into South Korea, the acquisition of pre-emptive strike capabilities, and expanded Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and sea and terrestrial-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence systems are part of these discussions. None would be welcome in Pyongyang, Beijing, or Moscow as they challenge their strategic calculus – for instance, China’s nuclear strategy of minimum deterrence.

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While North Korea will remain the focal point of his visit to the region, the Trump administration will have to instil confidence in alliance partners and friends in the region that the US is cognizant of and committed to the real mid- to long-term conundrum – the trajectory of the Sino-US relationship and the impact it will have on the Asia-Pacific.

The question is whether this relationship will be characterised by cooperation or conflict and whether the two superpowers can avoid what Graham Alisson calls the Thucydides Trap.

With these complex geopolitical dynamics in consideration, each country in Trump’s trip will be seeking different assurances.

Japan and South Korea will be looking for strong security guarantees by the US to deal with North Korea. As these imperatives overlap with America’s own security concerns, Trump’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo will likely be marked by cooperation, security pledges and broad agreement.

In addition to security guarantees related to Pyongyang’s bellicosity, Tokyo will also use the visit as a litmus test of America’s broader commitment to the region and ability to balance an increasingly influential China. Stressing the Indo-Pacific narrative in speeches during Trump’s visit, and making statements related to a potential US-Japan-Australia-India committed to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will allay concerns about US retrenchment, not just with Tokyo but also in Southeast Asia.

The China leg of his visit will be different in nature. Security issues with North Korea, China’s assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas, economic problems and China’s growing influence in the region are real concerns for the US.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, newly strengthened after the 19th Party Congress, knows this. He also understands that Trump is weak at home, and won’t feel the need to compromise with a US perceived to be in political chaos. That said, Xi does not want to provoke the US, so he will likely give Trump a few take-homes in terms of trade and support for denuclearising North Korea.

North Korea is where interests are converging. There is growing consensus in Beijing that Pyongyang has become a liability. Xi may be willing to exert more pressure on the North or at least set up the conditions for diplomacy once Pyongyang has consolidated its deterrence capabilities.

On issues that China deems its core interests, Trump will find that Xi’s concentration of power following the 19th Party Congress will make him a difficult counterpart to “make a good deal” with.

Vietnam and the Philippines are not afterthoughts in the Trump visit. The US sees Vietnam as a very important party in balancing China in the region. Through coordination with Vietnam, Trump brings political support to leaders in Hanoi as well as the promise to increase its support for South China Sea claimants. This approach fits neatly with Japan’s efforts to bolster security cooperation with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries in the region.

The visit to Manila is a message to the Philippines, to the region, and to China, that the US remains committed to the Asia-Pacific. Trump’s decision to attend the East Asian Summit will be welcomed by regional partners. It will be further evidence that under the Trump administration, the US has not pursued retrenchment as many feared, but rather an incremental and systematic increase in its commitment to the region as outlined in General Mattis’ speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2017.

In short, Trump’s visit is about three things: consolidating and coordinating US-led efforts to deal with North Korea; instilling confidence in friends and allies that the US is committed to the region and its partnerships; and conveying to Beijing that the US will support a China that develops according to a rules-based system – but will push back against any revisionist state that aims to ignore, reshape or recreate the current status quo.

Lastly, in terms of impact on the region, most countries in favour of America’s continued involvement view talk (and tweets) as cheap. Unless the US under Trump overtly increases resources in the region and commits to free trade and regional trade agreements, countries will see the trip as a watershed moment in which the US passed the torch of regional leadership to China.

Far from America First, this would only make China First in the Asia-Pacific.

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