Does the Trump Administration Have A Strategy for Asia? – Thoughts Ahead of the Trump-Xi Summit
by Zoltan Feher
Will Trump take Xi Jinping golfing at Mar-a-Lago? This question has come up in my conversations in the past weeks. This might sound like a banal, small detail in international politics, but it actually is important. Let me explain why.
By all counts, the major challenge for the United States now and in the foreseeable future is the rise of China and how that will result in a shift in relative power between the two leading powers. The United States is the preeminent great power today, but as China’s wealth and power will continue to grow, America will find its primacy challenged first in Asia, then globally.
The Obama administration has recognized this trend and decided that the U.S. will have to shift its focus and weight from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. By the consensus of foreign policy analysts, Obama’s “Asia Pivot” was a failure. As historian Niall Ferguson puts it, Obama’s “foreign policy has failed in Asia, where little remains of the much-vaunted pivot.”
So the much-needed rebalance to Asia awaits the Trump administration. What are they going to do? 70 days into this administration’s term, very little is known about their strategy. From what we do know, we can discern that the administration has so far chosen the path of negotiation instead of confrontation with China, and reaffirmed its commitment to U.S. allies in Asia.
During his campaign, Trump characterized China as the main adversary of the United States. He accused China of taking away U.S. jobs and even claimed that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Then, a few days after his election, he appeared to ignore the long-standing cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy towards China, the One China policy, by taking the congratulatory call of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This angered Beijing, who nonetheless responded with restraint. There were many speculations that this is part of what might be characteristic of the “Trump style” of diplomacy: open with a large bet so as to be able to walk back and, appearing conciliatory, settle on a high level. On the One China policy, that is exactly what Trump did. In his call with Chinese President Xi Jin-ping in January, he walked back and reaffirmed that the U.S. only recognizes one China, the People’s Republic.
Trump then withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade deal with Asian countries, which was the economic pillar of the Obama Pivot. This move was consistent with Trump’s line on trade deals, which he characterized as one-sided against American interests and blamed for the loss of U.S.-based jobs. On the other hand, the withdrawal has also had strategic ramifications. With the TPP out, China started courting the same Asian countries into some kind of trade arrangement, and they already have in place the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. America might have just given up an important segment of its Asian leadership portfolio to China.
Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have taken major trips to Asia in their first two months in office. In fact, Secretary Mattis went to Asia on his first official visit and reassured the U.S.’s major regional allies, Japan an South Korea, of America’s unrelenting commitment to their security and to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. On Tillerson’s trip to Asia three weeks ago, he skipped a dinner with South Korean officials because “he was too tired.” During his meeting with Chinese leader Xi, the Secretary of State adopted the language of his hosts on “a new type of great power relations.” In the Chinese terminology, this phrase means that the U.S. accepts China as an equal partner and as the other superpower. The U.S. terminology does not use this phrase. Tillerson was parroting the Chinese and that was a huge mistake. On the other hand, he was tough on the issue of North Korea, saying “all options were on the table,” including the use of military force against Pyongyang. I predict North Korea to become the first major international test of the Trump administration.
Trump has gotten the relationship with Japan right. He has met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe twice already – first in New York a week after the elections, then in February in official talks in Washington. Trump afterwards invited Abe to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Despite Trump’s campaign statements that Japan was not sharing enough of the burden for its own defense, the two leaders established great rapport. In a turn-around from his campaign rhetoric, the U.S. President even ended up thanking the Japanese people for hosting the U.S. troops at their joint press conference. U.S.-Japanese relations, which are part of the backbone of U.S. Asia policy, remain friendly and close.
What the first 70 days of the Trump administration show is that Trump understands the importance of Asia and the challenge of China’s rise. He has so far chosen negotiation over confrontation with Beijing, but has also given up an important tool of American leadership in Asia. Relations with U.S. allies in Asia remain stable. The U.S. is going to keep all options on the table with regard to North Korea, which has the potential of becoming the administration’s first crisis. Their first test will be in Asia.
Tomorrow, President Trump will welcome President Xi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. The tone and outcome of their meeting and the personal rapport they establish may determine the future of U.S. strategy towards China and in Asia in general. Let’s see how they get along and whether they golf together.
About the Author
Zoltan Feher is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at The Fletcher School and a Provost Fellow at Tufts University. Previously, he worked as a diplomat for Hungary between 2002 and 2014, most recently serving as Hungary’s Chargé d’Affaires in Turkey. In 2015-2016, he was a Mason Fellow and a teaching assistant to Professor Joseph Nye at the Harvard Kennedy School. His dissertation focuses on U.S. grand strategy.