Commentary / Japan

Divining the new U.S. Asia policy

by Ralph Cossa

Experience tells us to discount at least half of what is said during presidential campaigns: Ronald Reagan was going to recognize Taiwan; Jimmy Carter was going to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula; etc. The challenge is predicting correctly which half to discount.

It’s still anyone’s guess what the Donald Trump administration’s Asia policy will be, but in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, consistency is most likely to prevail.

Barack Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia will likely exit when he does. Still, the centrality of U.S. alliances has been a bipartisan constant since the end of World War II and America’s focus on Asia as a national security priority has enjoyed bipartisan support since the end of the Cold War. President-elect Trump’s assurances to South Korean President Park Geun-hye that he was committed to a “strong, firm” alliance and that America would be with South Korea “until the end” provide the first strong indication that U.S. alliances and commitments in Asia will continue.

Also encouraging was the post-dinner comments by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that “Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence.” While details of their discussion are sparse, one must assume the prime minister explained to the president-elect the importance of the alliance and the extent of Japan’s host nation support, which makes basing forces in Japan cheaper than keeping them in the United States. Beyond that, an important personal connection has already been made.

Another bipartisan constant has been America’s firm commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. While candidate Trump had a rather cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons — “If Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us” — he has since tweeted that “The @nytimes states today that DJT believes ‘more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.’ How dishonest are they. I never said this!” True, he never said those exact words, but the implication was there.

However, a Trump adviser (unnamed) recently commented that Trump has reportedly “moved on to talk about nonproliferation in a way that you would hear from any Republican president,” and further noted that “we are very much committed to both nonproliferation and assuring the allies that not only will they continue to be under the nuclear umbrella, but that we are going to be strengthening our missile defense in ways that alleviate some of their concerns about North Korea.”

If this is Trump’s real view — and it certainly should be — one hopes that he will firmly and consistently say these words himself, and sooner rather than later. Nuclear policy is about more than just national interests, it’s about national survival, Japan’s as well as America’s.

One area where Trump has been clear — and in this author’s opinion clearly wrong — has been in rejecting Obama’s signature multilateral trade deal: “On trade, I’m going to issue a notification of intent to withdraw from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). … Instead we will negotiate fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto America shores.”

Trump has argued that he is not against free trade, only “bad” deals. If, as the above may imply, he is prepared to pursue a bilateral agreement with the largest TPP partner — Japan — that can help repair some of the damage caused by his intended abrogation of American international trade leadership, but at some point he needs to readdress the multilateral agreement (just as Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama learned to live with NAFTA, after both campaigned against it).

Other than walking away from the TPP, which includes four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the good news is Southeast Asia was not an issue in the presidential campaign. As a result, reaffirming America’s commitment to ASEAN’s centrality in promoting constructive multilateral security cooperation should be easy (but should not be overlooked).

Relations with the individual ASEAN members is potentially more contentious. One of the Obama administration’s biggest successes has been its constructive engagement with Myanmar; this has to be sustained. Trickier yet will be dealing with Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, given their respective temperaments. Trump may be sympathetic toward Duterte’s goal of eradicating the Philippines drug problem but needs to also reiterate America’s commitment to due process and the rule of law.

Almost as important as having the correct policies is having personnel who can best explain and implement them. Trump’s choice as secretary of state will send a clear and important message. Should he pick an ideological conservative, it could send a (wrong) signal that America’s constructive engagement with China is being replaced by a hard-line containment approach. Someone with some diplomatic experience — former U.S. Ambassador to China and Singapore Jon Huntsman immediately comes to mind — would be much more reassuring.

Many pundits have been commenting, mostly negatively, on the possibility that Trump may look to a retired military officer to fill this position. Such concerns appear misplaced. Experience tells us that generals are least inclined to recommend the use of the military instrument since they are most aware of the human consequences of imploring such an option. Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. Colin Powell are two prime examples of generals who excelled as the nation’s top diplomat.

America’s commitment to Asia is not new. With every passing year, the region continues to grow in importance to the U.S., politically, economically and strategically. Clarity regarding the new administration’s policy toward Asia is critical and must be presented without delay.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonpartisan foreign policy research institute.