HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA – The election o f Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has brought surprise and uncertainty to the world, and Japan and the Asia-Pacific region are no exception.
Given American interests in the region during a time of increasing tension, it is vital that Trump communicate where his administration stands on key economic and defense issues affecting Tokyo and the broader region.
Providing clarity in the following areas would lessen chances of miscalculations by allies and adversaries, instill confidence in stakeholders and help the new administration take advantage of new opportunities that changes of leadership bring.
Trade: Asia is familiar with Trump’s railings against China and Japan’s trade practices and his pledges to “reduce America’s trade deficit” during his campaign. He has begun the process of making good on these campaign promises with his recent pledge to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal during his first day in office — all of this in spite of Tokyo’s efforts to dissuade such actions.
Given that Trump has described himself as not being against trade but wanting to “make better deals” and strive for “fair trade,” his administration should explain in general terms the types of enforceable rules that Washington will insist upon in negotiations. A failure to do so would add to the present state of uncertainty in the region and harm prospects for the fair trade that Trump seeks for American workers.
Some argue that present ambiguities have initiated the process of ceding trade policy in Asia to China, pointing to Chinese President Xi Jingping’s statements at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru: “Openness is vital for the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific. … We will fully involve ourselves in economic globalization. … China will not shut the door to the outside world but will open it even wider.”
The Korean Peninsula: The Obama administration has failed to make progress in blunting Pyongyang’s efforts to weaponize a ballistic missile. As such, North Korea continues to be a growing, menacing threat to South Korea, Japan and the U.S.
Beyond this, the Obama administration’s stated intentions to improve the North Korean human rights situation has floundered with new, tragic revelations that the regime’s gulags are expanding and thriving.
Trump would be well advised to take a new approach. A first step would be to explicitly state Washington’s guarantee of allied defenses and support of the installation of the U.S. Army’s anti-ballistic missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in South Korea over objections by Beijing and Pyongyang.
Such measures would be viewed by Tokyo and Seoul as a tactful walking back on Trump’s campaign threats to lessen U.S. defense support for Japan and South Korea in the absence of both countries footing more of the bill to host U.S. troops. These steps would provide needed assurance that there will be no scaled-back American military deterrent in Northeast Asia.
Concerning China’s broad influence over North Korea and role in propping up its regime, the need to identify new ways of compelling Beijing’s involvement with curtailing North Korean behavior takes on added importance given Pyongyang’s alarming nuclear advancements.
Initial steps of sanctioning Chinese companies, banks and actors involved in North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights abuses — accompanied by the threat of tariffs on select Chinese goods — would send a strong first message by the Trump administration.
China: Trump’s Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, while running against American policy, ought not to set off U.S.-China relations on a bad footing if handled correctly. A stated commitment by the Trump administration to peaceful cross-strait relations would be a helpful first step toward calming nerves.
Yet, Trump must be firm and clear on a range of issues covering the multifaceted U.S.-China relationship involving trade, investment, security, intelligence, geopolitics, the environment and human rights, among other areas.
Unequivocal statements from the Trump administration on America’s enduring commitment to the security of the Asia-Pacific region would help counter concerns that China is the region’s inevitable, sole hegemon. These statements must be demonstrated by upgrades to both U.S. military capabilities and partnerships in the region.
Japan and other U.S. partners: Trump’s campaign statements that opposed the TPP and questioned the Japan-U.S. security alliance understandably rocked Tokyo, prompting last month’s hastily arranged meeting between Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York.
Beyond this, U.S. relations with Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia have suffered recently, resulting in these three traditional U.S. partners deepening their ties with Beijing. Trump can do the following to reverse these setbacks and give confidence to Japan and other partners regarding U.S. involvement in the region:
Demonstrate an openness to engage the region commercially, despite the harsh campaign rhetoric about trade. By recognizing the desires and hopes of the region’s economies, the Trump administration will be granted more accommodation in its efforts to reform trade practices.
Increase military visits to the region and reassure Tokyo and other Asian partners that Washington’s undertakings in the war on terror will not distract from its responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
Identify areas of cooperation on issues that those in Asia are presently confronting: security, economic development, infrastructure and investment. A failure to engage in these areas would raise doubts about Washington’s commitment to provide a stabilizing influence to the region.
Acting on these initial steps will help clarify the incoming administration’s policies and commitment to Asia. It will also help the new White House work with this growing, dynamic part of the world in which the U.S. will continue to have vital stakes for generations to come.
Ted Gover teaches political science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.