NEW YORK – Every new occupant of the White House has his — still, unfortunately, “his” — way of looking at the world. America’s allies, friends and rivals have always adjusted to these shifts in worldview. But so far they’ve been relatively straightforward. Some presidents have sought to extend democratic values, others to fight grand strategic battles. The last swore not to “do stupid stuff.” Adjusting to U.S. President Donald Trump won’t be that easy.
Trump’s foreign policy, especially when it comes to Asia, is both predictable and unpredictable. It’s predictable because he has repeatedly indicated that he questions America’s traditional role as the guarantor of regional security. And it’s unpredictable because no one knows what aspects of that role might be abandoned or negotiated away.
The nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia? Support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? A continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan? Trump will want to prove that he is, in fact, a deal-maker — and all anyone can assume is that everything is now a bargaining chip.
Under these circumstances, one of two futures seems possible for the region. In one, Trump’s deal-making with China breaks down, and both economic and political confrontation escalates. This would mean a reassertion of U.S. power in Asia and a more active containment of China — something many Asian countries would secretly be pleased to see.
The other path is one in which Trump decides that policing Asia is not in U.S. interests, or is convinced that Chinese red lines on security are less worth breaching than those on bilateral trade issues. Then, it’s assumed, most of Asia will bow to the inevitable and kowtow to an increasingly assertive China.
But those aren’t the only two options, nor should they be. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that, in the Trump era, “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands.” This is even truer of Asia. If regional powers want to maintain both prosperity and their freedom to maneuver, they finally have to evolve toward the closer cooperation they tout endlessly at summit meetings, forging real partnerships based on shared interests and shared values.
What those common interests are should be clear. Across Asia, growth and economic stability depend on trade. Countries from India to Indonesia to Japan require a security architecture that respects sovereignty and doesn’t interfere with trade, as well as an increased focus on connectivity and infrastructure than can reenergize trade flows.
China’s Belt and Road project, which aims to link the countries of Eurasia with a network of Chinese-built roads, pipelines, ports and other infrastructure, aims to address the latter need. But it may well run into trouble when Asian capitals realize that they will have to pay much more, in both treasure and tribute, than they expect. Meanwhile, China may remain relatively closed to Asian companies and services, even as Chinese goods flood neighbors’ markets. China says it supports a multipolar world, but appears to seek a unipolar Asia.
To prevent such an outcome, most Asian powers will have to step up and shoulder more responsibility. Japan will have to shed its diffidence and openly declare that it is competing with China as a funder of infrastructure networks. While Japan’s overseas spending on infrastructure rivals Chinese plans, its projects are poorly branded, imperfectly connected across nations and evoke less excitement. This will have to change. And Japan will have to take the lead in implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the United States, if China is not to set the new terms of trade.
India, too, will have to show more energy and determination. Speaking at New Delhi’s Raisina Dialogue last week, Indian officials sounded the right notes. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of a multipolar Asia and demanded an Asian security architecture that is “transparent, balanced and inclusive.” He said the Indian Ocean should be policed by “those who live in this region.” He even spoke of international norms, including freedom of navigation, that must govern the “Indo-Pacific” — thus thrusting India firmly into an area China considers its sphere of influence.
But words won’t be enough. India, and others, must put in the hard diplomatic and economic work needed to build consensus behind these norms. Asian militaries must learn to work together, exercise together and patrol together, and must shed some of their traditional suspicions. India must overcome its doubts about new-age trade agreements, and the countries of Southeast Asia must learn to act beyond an Association of Southeast Asian Nations that China can bend to its will.
Asia, like Europe, is on its own. It must now shape its own destiny, before either the U.S. or China do so.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.
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