WASHINGTON – With Washington now rocked by the fallout from the Ukraine scandal and the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, top U.S. Asia strategists are surely hard at work to remind that American leadership in the Indo-Pacific rests on the continued strength of its alliances in the region. By some measures, however, the United States has already become somewhat unhinged from its Asian partners.
A recent study by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies found that an alarming majority of elite opinions in the Asian region (68 percent) believe that U.S. engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations under U.S. President Donald Trump has deteriorated. At a time when the U.S.’s fastest-growing trade and security partners are all in Asia, Washington’s reliability in the Indo-Pacific region is increasingly an open question.
Make no mistake, the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy is a worthy addition to U.S. policy in Asia, consistent with prior strategic thinking about the region. According to the Pentagon’s latest report on the subject in June, U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy revolves around the simultaneous enhancement of long-standing objectives on economic engagement, security cooperation, and strengthened governance — a balance of priorities that aligns with the approaches of key partners like Japan and Australia.
But despite Trump’s efforts to date, regional counterparts appear to be slow-walking their commitments to his “free and open” rhetoric and partner-building projects in the Indo-Pacific. This equivocation — even among fellow democratic countries like South Korea and the Philippines — begs a closer look at why the current approach is struggling to rally support.
In our view, the problem begins with a widening perceptions gap between Asia and the U.S. On economics and security, Washington’s recent protectionist behavior toward close allies, increasingly exclusionary treatment of strategic competitors, and noncommittal attitude to global challenges like climate change are muddying international views regarding its commitment to inclusive prosperity.
On governance, meanwhile, Washington’s best efforts to promote the rule of law, transparency, accountability, human rights and democratic civil society are facing stiff resistance from authoritarian regimes across the globe, who are finding it easier than ever to preserve social control with the proliferation of invasive technologies.
In theory, international norms and values contributing to a safer and more prosperous regional order, as well as mutual security concerns regarding China, North Korea, and major environmental and resource challenges in developing areas across South and Southeast Asia, should incentivize greater cooperation with the U.S.
Objectively speaking, however, American influence is in relative decline to rising powers like China and India. Already, military planners see gaps in U.S. preparedness versus China and Russia. Recent U.S. initiatives to address an estimated $26 trillion infrastructure investment need in Asia through 2030 — including Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy), the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation — are advancing development assistance at the working level. But overall, the U.S. approach has been restrained by limited resources and coordination between policymakers and the private sector.
Trump’s ongoing assault on free trade norms, disdain for global institutions and multilateral initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord, early reluctance to challenge countries like Myanmar and the Philippines on their human rights offenses, and even John Bolton’s departure as national security adviser last month — the president’s third in less than three years — underscores his administration’s troubling breakdown in foreign policy and national security decision-making.
While most Americans remain pro-engagement on trade, Pew polling also indicates there is waning domestic buy-in — especially among younger voters — for looking after allies and opposing major competitors like China and Russia. With the ongoing displacement of U.S. manufacturing by cheap labor overseas and new technologies like artificial intelligence, American voters increasingly favor elected officials who oppose foreign policies which do not recognizably benefit the U.S.
This crisis of confidence is illustrated by the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump’s “America first” ideology, the push by some Democratic presidential hopefuls for a less muscular foreign policy, and the tendency for corporate and other domestic special interests to tie the administration’s hands overseas.
Given these macro-trends, a big challenge for American policymakers going forward will be to manage foreign expectations of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific, even as Washington is increasingly diverted by its shifting balance of power with China.
The transactionalism with which Trump treats partner and competitor nations alike has already had repercussions for U.S. alliance management in the region.
The ongoing tailspin in Japan-South Korea relations is a prime example. The Trump administration’s reluctance to intervene publicly in the politically-charged disagreements between Tokyo and Seoul — though well-founded in its concern for appearing too heavy-handed — provides oxygen for a diplomatic coup by China. Beijing is already posturing to stage an intervention, urging the two sides at a recent ministerial to move forward with trilateral free trade negotiations.
Analysts attribute the recent tensions to the liberal Moon Jae-in government’s unilateral reversal of prior conservative policy to “irreversibly” settle the legacy of Japan’s colonization of Korea. But while history and domestic politics are sustained drivers of the bilateral relationship, the two sides’ wildly fluctuating perceptions of each other may also be symptomatic of a series of diplomatic missteps by the U.S.
In 2015, for instance, the Obama administration angered South Korean civil society when it dismissed Seoul’s “comfort women” protests against Japan as a “cheap” nationalist ploy, comments that needed further clarification to rally both sides to a compromise. The U.S. under Trump has continued to behave erratically, criticizing its bilateral trade relationships with both countries, demanding favorable alliance cost-sharing terms from Seoul (and soon Tokyo), and reducing military exercises on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for questionable concessions toward denuclearization from North Korea.
Washington should not be responsible for treating fractures between Japan and South Korea, but it can play an important role in helping the two sides work out their differences.
Pacific and Indian ocean states vital for their location at various military and commercial chokepoints have also hesitated to embrace the “free and open” vision. While ASEAN, India, and even Pakistan chafe at China’s “string of pearls” strategy to extend its sea lines of communication to the Middle East and Africa, their dependency on economic incentives from Beijing forces them to respond flexibly and ambiguously — both pivoting to and away from Washington.
In the South China Sea, ASEAN remains alert to the limitations of U.S. “saber-rattling” in response to China’s asymmetric provocations. Leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are wary of relying too heavily on a distant foreign power whose military primacy regional analysts increasingly doubt. Their uncertainty also reflects the inherent constraints on U.S. extended deterrence of threatening major-power war over small stakes, sometimes discussed in the context of Washington’s Article 5 commitments to Japan’s defense of the Senkaku Islands.
ASEAN’s meandering code of conduct (CoC) negotiations with China will only further hinder the U.S. While the talks would advance a framework for restricting Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, China’s de facto control over many of the disputed islands suggests its military presence there will eventually become the new status quo — CoC or no CoC. Moreover, Beijing’s demands for the CoC to restrict joint military exercises with external powers — if accepted — would undermine ASEAN’s efforts to keep the U.S. in play in Southeast Asia.
The situation is similar in South Asia. India’s recent border skirmishes with China and clashes with Pakistan over Kashmir and Jammu have incentivized a more assertive Indian foreign policy including expanded military cooperation and intelligence-sharing with the U.S. On the other hand, Trump’s criticisms of India’s trade protectionism, and local skittishness about U.S.-China competition, are prompting no small amount of hedging in New Delhi.
Given Washington’s intensifying competition with Beijing, the U.S. faces accusations of neglect from the rest of small- and middle-power Asia. These abandonment fears sometimes manifest as concern about the U.S.’s adherence to “ASEAN centrality,” the notion of ASEAN’s central role in the power dynamics of Asia.
The Trump administration can certainly do a better job of communicating that its efforts in the region are not solely fixed on countering Beijing. To the extent that China’s impact on the region is not all negative, the U.S. can do more to steer development policy toward a place where sustainable and inclusive governance principles like transparency, accountability and the empowerment of marginalized local stakeholders become common practice.
This expanded perspective will be particularly significant for U.S. and allied efforts to finance quality infrastructure development and capacity-building in countries that were treated as geopolitical pawns during the Cold War, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. Indeed, Washington’s response to the Mekong delta’s complex water disputes with upstream countries like China, specifically regarding the negative environmental and economic impacts of various dam projects, could serve as a telling barometer of its support for best practices in this historically tokenized part of the region.
In a region as diverse and tumultuous as the Indo-Pacific, the path to good governance will be fraught with setbacks. But in the long-run, the U.S.’s enduring presence in Asia can convince dubious countries of a rules-based system’s ability to foster conditions for political stability and economic strength over time.
Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Matthew Sullivan is a projects coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Diplomat.