NEW YORK – When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump administration’s basic approach often appears to be “one step forward, two steps back.” No sooner does U.S. President Donald Trump unveil a seemingly promising initiative than he fatally undercuts it through his own proclivities and erraticism.
True to form, Trump’s recent trip to Asia provided a glimmer of hope that his administration might be adopting a coherent strategy toward the region. Too bad the trip also showed that the administration’s approach remains self-defeating.
First, the good news. Prior to the trip, the Trump team began touting its overarching strategic concept for the region — the idea of working to preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” In some ways, this was an old but welcome concept, because it simply affirmed the previous U.S. commitment to upholding a stable and relatively liberal climate in one of the most strategically valuable areas of the world.
More implicitly, it signaled that the administration understood the importance of opposing aggressive powers that threaten this favorable environment — not just North Korea with its rockets and nuclear weapons, but also China with its expansionism in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Yet if this aspect of the concept was old news, the twist was that the Trump team explicitly expanded the area in question from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. This was a welcome recognition that the entire space from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific constitutes a single strategic theater, and that drawing India into a deeper and more multilateral partnership with the U.S. and key Asia-Pacific allies such as Japan and Australia is critical to offsetting Chinese power and ambition. Add in pre-trip reports that the administration was preparing to get tough with China on trade and security matters, and it seemed that the seeds of an overall regional strategy were starting to be sown.
Trump’s team also did a decent job of starting to substantiate this vision — or at least aspects of it — during the trip itself. In Japan, he rightly emphasized expanding bilateral security cooperation, particularly arms sales, to deal with North Korea and other threats. His speech to the South Korean parliament was firm but not needlessly provocative, and concurrent exercises involving three U.S. carrier strike groups served a useful reminder — not just to Pyongyang but also Beijing — of the unequaled military strength Washington can muster.
During the latter stages of the trip, U.S. officials held working-level meetings with their counterparts from Japan, India and Australia, reviving an important quadrilateral grouping that had not convened for a decade — and signaling that Chinese behavior is pushing the U.S. and its partners toward expanded cooperation.
Combined with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to India in October, in which he stressed the role of New Delhi as a rising global power and a check on a potentially aggressive China, Trump’s trip might thus have shown that the administration was gradually piecing together a workable regional security concept.
The bad news is that Trump, being Trump, also managed to undercut that concept, in three crucial ways.
First, the China leg of Trump’s trip sent all the wrong messages. Rather than showing that the U.S. is willing to take a firm stand against Chinese pressure in the South China Sea, even as it seeks Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea, Trump indulged his propensity to fawn over an authoritarian leader. We do not know what was said behind closed doors, of course. But the fact that Trump repeatedly offered high praise for President Xi Jinping, that he soft-pedaled critiques of China’s regional behavior, and that he explicitly declined to blame China for the bilateral trade imbalance with the U.S. will only reinforce the regional perception that Trump is more inclined to accommodate rather than balance against Beijing.
Second, Trump demonstrated, yet again, that he does not grasp the role of democratic values in cementing key U.S. alliances and partnerships and contributing to a favorable regional environment. Previous presidents repeatedly affirmed that shared liberal ideas constituted the ideological core of America’s most important relationships, and offered a vision for an increasingly democratic regional future (even as sometimes they necessarily cooperated with non-democratic powers).
Yet Trump’s admiration for Xi, and his continued public displays of support for Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte — whose government is presiding over a stunning campaign of extrajudicial executions of alleged criminals and terrorists — simply affirms that this administration has downgraded human rights and democracy to a truly remarkable degree. Trump may have spoken of a “free and open” region, but his behavior demonstrated as much sympathy for authoritarians as democracies.
Third, and perhaps most important, Trump showed once again that he is blind to the importance of trade and commercial openness in underpinning America’s key security relationships. The president praised America’s tradition of defense cooperation with Japan, yet he continued to harangue Tokyo over its trade surplus with the U.S. administration officials sought to foster enhanced multilateral cooperation on regional security issues, yet Trump reiterated his previous condemnations of the multilateral trade deals that previous administrations had seen as necessary complements to those defense relationships.
The juxtaposition of Trump touting protectionism and economic nationalism, while Xi defended free trade and globalization, and a number of U.S. allies and partners reached agreement on a rump Trans-Pacific Partnership — the regional trade deal from which the president withdraw in January — was particularly jarring. Trump seems to be calculating that the U.S. can achieve its security goals in the Indo-Pacific while neglecting or even rolling back its engagement to sustain an open regional economy.
This is a fateful strategic mistake. In the broadest sense, U.S. security and economic relationships have long gone hand-in-hand. Liberal trade practices have provided the economic lubricant for military partnerships, and reinforced the idea that America’s interactions with its closest friends are positive-sum rather than zero-sum. Likewise, allies have deferred to Washington on geopolitical issues not just because of the military protection the U.S. provides but because of its critical role in advancing an open international economy from which those allies benefit enormously.
In today’s geopolitical climate, the economic dimensions of American policy are even more important. China is aggressively using geo-economic initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Belt and Road Initiative to draw neighboring countries deeper into its economic orbit, precisely as the U.S. is distancing itself from the projects that might have been used to counter Beijing’s design. Trump is not only attenuating critical aspects of American engagement in the Indo-Pacific; he is doing so at a time when the cost of that attenuation is likely to be particularly severe.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”
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