US President Donald Trump arrived in Japan Sunday, officially embarking on his first Asia tour since assuming office. Trump hasn’t elaborated on his Asia or Asia-Pacific strategy before, and some analysts believe that Trump does not want to be bound by strategy, rather, he hopes to take more flexible actions that will benefit his “America First” policy.
On Asian issues, Trump has focused more on the North Korean nuclear crisis and the trade balance. The two issues are also related to the US’ concerns over China’s rise.
How to deal with ties with China is the core of Washington’s Asia-Pacific policy. Barack Obama’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific was clear in strategy, but did not succeed. It failed to obstruct China’s rise, and brought no concrete benefits to the US. Therefore, although the Trump administration has inherited Obama’s vigilance toward China, the strategy of a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has been all but abandoned.
Since taking office, Trump has not only continued to strengthen Washington’s alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region, but also emphasized the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” recently, as he enhances ties with India. This follows Obama’s old path. But Washington still flatly abandoned Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, whisking away the economic skeleton of the rebalance strategy, meaning keeping the integrity of the strategy is an unlikely prospect.
Trump is strengthening security ties with his Asia-Pacific allies, and, instead of offering economic boons to consolidate the united security front, the US is considering using security bonds to drive Asia-Pacific countries to offer it economic interests. This is perhaps all that Trump expects from the US-Asia relationship. Regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, Trump hopes the countries concerned can take action as Washington requires, jointly coercing Pyongyang to surrender.
Even though US allies are unhappy about Washington’s calculations, they have attached great importance to and are quite warm about Trump’s visit as they try to figure out his real intentions. The relationship between Trump and Asian countries is at a delicate stage.
Washington’s Asia-Pacific policy faces a basic problem – to what extent do peripheral countries actually feel threatened by China’s rise? Some countries are not used to China’s rise, and, given territorial disputes in the region, the “China threat” theory is sometimes hyped up. But it is far from the extent that these countries have to pay tribute to the US for security. Their strengthening security talks with Washington stem from a need to feel comfort, but also from a desire to seek more economic interests from Washington.
China and the US are engaged in more competition than before. Washington can either maintain its advantages by weakening and containing Beijing, or continue to develop so its advantages can be self-sustaining. While Obama chose the former, Trump seems to be giving credence to the latter option, despite facing a number of obstacles. Given the tremendous amount of Beijing-Washington exchanges, the economic integrity between China and peripheral countries, and Beijing’s policy of peaceful development, the strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific will reach a dead end sooner or later. Washington’s intention to enhance security cooperation with Asian countries to contain China without providing any economic incentives is quite unrealistic.
Trump should focus more resources on domestic construction, in which endeavor a friendly and cooperative Asia is required. “Offshore balance” is costly and will only bring political benefits to the US. Progress in trade and the North Korean nuclear crisis, to a large degree, are dependent on cooperation with China. All these determine that Trump is unlikely to treat China as a main rival in designing his Asia-Pacific policy.
More importantly, there are no real grounds for regional countries to jointly contain China. Excessive precautions against China will be to no avail.