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Asia and the Trump Administration: Challenges, Opportunities, and a Road Ahead

By James J. Przystup and Phillip C. Saunders INSS Strategic Perspectives 26

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Executive Summary

Aug. 8, 2017 — Strategic Perspectives 26The Asia-Pacific region is of exponentially increasing importance to the United States. Developments there affect vital U.S. economic, security, and political interests. Unfettered access to the region is a strategic imperative to allow the United States to protect and advance its wide-ranging national interests. 

The Donald Trump administration, in the face of a rapidly evolving strategic environment, will need to develop policies to sustain the U.S. presence and safeguard American interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Defining trends in the Asia-Pacific region include: 

  • Rapid economic growth that has increased the region’s weight in world affairs and importance to U.S. interests. Asia-Pacific economies make up more than one-quarter of the global economy and account for about one-third of all U.S. trade. 
  • Rising Chinese economic and military power that has reshaped global and regional trade and investment patterns and challenged U.S. regional dominance. Countries in the region value their economic ties with China and do not want to be forced to make a strategic choice between Washington and Beijing. 
  • Increasing U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic engagement with the region since the end of the Cold War. 

Although countries in the Asia-Pacific region are primarily focused on economic development, a number of security challenges could threaten regional stability and damage U.S. interests. These include: 

  • Sino-Japanese rivalry and conflicting claims over maritime boundaries in the East China Sea and over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands 
  • North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities, which challenge nonproliferation norms, threaten U.S. regional allies, and will eventually include the ability to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)  
  • China’s desire to resolve the Chinese civil war by achieving unification with Taiwan, and Beijing’s increasing efforts to develop the military capabilities and economic leverage necessary to coerce Taipei into accepting a political relationship with the mainland. 
  • Increasing tensions over conflicting maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, with all claimants engaging in a range of tactics to strengthen their positions and China making greater use of its military and paramilitary forces to try to expand its effective control of disputed waters. 

We advocate a regional strategy focused on working with U.S. allies, partners, and multilateral organizations to build a rules-based regional order that includes China and advances U.S. economic, security, and political interests. 

  • A rules-based regional order will help the United States to maintain economic, security, and political access to the Asia-Pacific region and advance its interests in the face of regional trends and security challenges. 
  • This approach requires sustaining the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region and intensifying cooperation with other regional allies and partners to shape China’s choices and make it pay a price for aggressive actions that violate international rules and norms. 
  • If the United States is not actively engaged in shaping the regional economic order, that order is likely to evolve in ways that do not reflect U.S. interests. 

The starting point for a strategic approach to the Asia-Pacific region is to reinforce existing bilateral alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand to deal with specific security threats. The alliances also provide a good foundation for expanding regional security cooperation. The United States should: 

  • encourage increased cooperation among U.S. allies 
  • develop strategic partnerships with key states in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam 
  • support trilateral and quadrilateral cooperation mechanisms with Australia, Japan, India, and South Korea 
  • shape the evolution of regional norms through active U.S. participation in regional organizations and dialogue mechanisms. 

If the United States emphasizes its alliances, expands security cooperation with other partners, and actively engages in regional multilateral institutions and dialogues, it will be able to deal with China from a position of strength. 

 The mixture of cooperation and competition in the U.S.-China relationship will present the new administration with a defining challenge given China’s increasing ability to affect the broad range of U.S. global, regional, and domestic interests. The policy challenge will be to maximize cooperation while competing successfully in areas where U.S. and Chinese interests are opposed. 

  • President Trump will need to engage directly with his Chinese counterpart to keep both governments focused on a cooperative agenda and to manage the more competitive aspects of the relationship. Domestic economic and political problems are likely to produce more restrained Chinese external behavior and give U.S. policymakers more leverage. 
  • China does not aspire to challenge the United States for global leadership. In most regions, its focus on maintaining stability and securing access to resources and markets is relatively compatible with U.S. interests. 
  • U.S. and Chinese interests are less aligned in the Asia-Pacific, where China seeks increased influence and increasingly views the United States as a constraint. Heightened U.S.-China strategic competition and the potential for military incidents or crises makes it imperative to improve bilateral communications and crisis management mechanisms. 
  • U.S. policymakers should resist Beijing’s efforts to create a U.S.-China condominium or “G-2”-like arrangement, which would require accepting Chinese territorial claims (including to Taiwan) at the expense of U.S. allies and partners. 

 The United States will have to deal with the rapidly evolving nuclear and missile threat posed by North Korea, the most destabilizing element in the Asia-Pacific security environment.  

  • Military options are unattractive given the vulnerability of U.S. allies to attack by North Korean long-range artillery and missiles armed with nuclear warheads. 
  • North Korea has no interest in trading its nuclear program for economic assistance; it seeks recognition as a nuclear weapons state. 
  • Given North Korea’s history of cheating, a negotiated freeze on nuclear and missile testing that does not include intrusive verification measures is unlikely to permanently constrain the North Korean ICBM program and would likely require concessions that would reduce U.S. ability to deter and defend its allies against a North Korean attack. 
  • Given the bad options, the most effective policy may be to strengthen deterrence and defense of the ROK and Japan, maintain the external pressure of economic sanctions, and keep the door open to dialogue and diplomacy, aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Pyongyang in the September 2005 Six Party statement. 
  • To deal with the possibility of instability or regime collapse, the Trump administration should work to closely coordinate U.S. and ROK objectives, endstates, and policy responses and try to engage China in discussions of responses to various contingencies. 

Over the next 4 years, the United States will be challenged to maintain its leadership of a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region. Sustained U.S. involvement and close coordination with regional allies and partners will allow the Trump administration not only to meet the challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, but also to grasp the opportunities. 

  • U.S. diplomacy must play a leading role in strengthening our alliances, partnerships, and regional institutions that widely share the U.S. commitment to a rules-based order as the foundation of regional peace and stability. 
  • Consistent engagement with the region by the highest levels of U.S. leadership will be critical for success. 
  • Allies, partners, and potential challengers will judge the regular presence of the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense in the region as a key indicator of U.S. commitment.

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