The unexpected victory of Donald Trump saw a variety of responses from Northeast Asia’s leaders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly took a trip to Trump tower for a tete-a-tete. President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, waited until Trump explicitly accepted the one-China policy before engaging in dialogue. This patience was characteristic of Xi’s pensive approach to foreign policy, but also an indication that Washington-Beijing relations are of paramount importance to achieving Xi’s Chinese Dream.
Similarly, South Korea — despite being distracted by President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment — preferred to try and finesse its way through controversial remarks from the U.S. president. This has not been without hiccups as North Korea’s post-election belligerence and Olympic diplomacy as well as Trump’s commitment to denuclearizing Pyongyang, have tested the alliance and South Korean leaders.
More startling for regional leaders is that Trump’s campaign promises included withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, slapping tariffs on China, opening up Taiwan to official visits from U.S. officials and potentially pulling out of the free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea, known as KORUS.
These have required Xi, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Abe to recalibrate and prioritize their long-term strategic objectives as Washington’s mercurial president continues his unorthodox governing by slapping steel, aluminum and other tariffs on China and steel and aluminum tariffs on Japan, while spontaneously reaching out to North Korea without consulting key allies and partners in the region.
Trump’s campaign and presidential rhetoric has been bombastic, inconsistent and often not based on facts. However, it has largely been more lip than teeth. Northeast Asian leaders have patiently and wisely not reacted. Instead, they have voiced their discomfort behind closed doors.
This nonconfrontational approach creates opportunity for dialogue and tests whether Trump’s tweets are reflective of transformative changes in bilateral relations. Usually, they are not.
For example, despite early fears that the U.S. would pull back, the Trump administration has in fact increased its commitment to the region. Under Trump, the U.S. has stepped up Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), increased security cooperation with Japan and South Korea, conducted naval visits to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and promoted the resurrection of the Quadrilateral. These activities do not include the most overt increase in U.S. military and diplomatic activity in relation to North Korea.
Importantly, this increased activity came before the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy that explicitly calls out China as a strategic competitor.
For Japan, the recent trade tariffs are not illustrative of the broader strengthening of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Washington has explicitly restated that the Senkaku Islands fall under the bilateral security treaty. We have also seen a step-up in coordinated training and growing synergy when it comes to regional security challenges in East Asia, such as North Korean belligerence or perceived Chinese assertiveness.
The tariffs on steel and aluminum, while politically uncomfortable for Abe, are a short-term penalty for not entering immediately into bilateral trade negotiations with an anti-trade Washington. In the long term, avoiding confronting Trump on trade issues allows Japan to prioritize areas on which they can work together while keeping the doors open for the U.S. to reach a renegotiated Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
While Japan’s place within the Trump administration mostly occupies the economic bandwidth, South Korea and the Korean Peninsula include both security and economic challenges. Denuclearizing North Korea is the foremost priority for the Trump administration as a permanently nuclear-armed Pyongyang could significantly weaken the U.S.’ security architecture in the region.
Washington, whether under the leadership of Trump or Obama, would have had a similar geopolitical calculation in this regard. Where they differ is Trump’s economic nationalism. Here Moon, under the threat of continued North Korean belligerence, will face increasing difficulty in resisting the Trump administration’s trade agenda and security priority of denuclearizing the North while retaining a foothold in South Korea as part of its security architecture in the region.
The most dramatic change in Northeast Asian responses to Washington will come from Xi, especially considering the recent removal of term limits and his “re-election” as president of China.
Since Trump came to power, Xi has been labeled as a strategic competitor, seen the imposition of tariffs, watched the promotion a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific through the Quad and seen an increase in FONOPS in the South China Sea. He has witnessed a tangible shift in Washington and much of the world’s views on China’s “peaceful development.”
This seismic change will require Xi to follow Deng Xiaoping’s axiom of “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership” — which would mean deferring to Washington’s influence. Or he could push back against Chinese perceptions of containment and concerns about preventing the realization of the China Dream.
South Korea and Japan will stand in tandem in how they respond to Trump’s leadership. For those two countries, despite the complexities and challenges of their alliances with the U.S. under the present administration, their long-term security, political and economic interests are wedded to the U.S., Trump or not. Back-door diplomacy, flattery and compromise for long-term gain will be preferred over confrontational approaches for short-term gain.
China under Xi’s and the communist party’s leadership on the other hand, fueled by a growing sense of nationalistic entitlement and hubris, is likely to shift away from its less confrontational approach with Washington. This may come by way of employing alternative trade relations with the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative, but also through direct push back against Trump.
Leaders in the party’s headquarters in Zhongnanhai, while preferring nonconfrontational approaches to managing relations with Washington, are acutely aware that Trump’s White House is inhabited by security and economic hawks who feel confident enough in the political zeitgeist to press hard against China in the security and economic spheres. The addition of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to the Trump team will no doubt underscore this trend to the Chinese leadership.
A newly empowered Xi will find it difficult not to push back himself against the U.S. This change could mark a new beginning in Sino-U.S. relations, one characterized by peer rivals in which leaders in Beijing and Washington move their disagreements and conflicting world views from behind closed doors into more open confrontation in regional and global institutions.
Stephen R Nagy is a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at the International Christian University, Tokyo, and a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation (APF) in Canada. This article was published earlier at www.policyforum.net .
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