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  • Sea Change or More of the Same? Trump’s Security Policies in Asia
  • William T. Tow (bio)

After decades of relative stability and predictability for U.S. strategy in Asia, President Donald Trump has quickly and substantially transformed his country’s policy behavior in the region. More than any of his recent predecessors—and notwithstanding efforts by some of his own advisers to constrain his actions—this U.S. president has proved to be a highly transactional figure who is undaunted by those from the U.S. policy establishment who question the validity and effectiveness of his instincts and negotiating style. His foreign affairs agenda is driven by the pursuit of those domestic economic and political objectives he views as critical for “making America great again.” This largely insular approach has been labeled as a form of Jacksonian foreign policy.1 It has resulted in more open negotiations with autocrats, confrontations with traditional allies and partners on a wide array of previously stable issues, and a radical adjustment to the United States’ geopolitics to better fit with his own views of the world.

Policy Continuities and Contradictions

Writing at the end of 2017, renowned Asian affairs expert Sheldon Simon observed that President Trump has been dismantling the U.S.-led, postwar rules-based international order without any tangible strategy for what would replace it or how long it would take for any such alternative to materialize. Trump, Simon insisted, “has rejected past synergies between U.S. vital interests and the responsibilities of global leadership.” Instead, he views international relations as an unmitigated zero-sum process and rejects the security alliances and institutions created by his predecessors “because they required U.S. financial expenditures and supposedly yielded few benefits.”2 Past assumptions that U.S. international engagement and leadership yield constructive reciprocity for all involved have taken a back [End Page 10] seat to what Trump views as the need to rectify a long-standing exploitation of U.S. interests and resources by the country’s allies and competitors. Venerable analysts of U.S. policy in Asia such as Simon, however, have always understood that the realities of geopolitics are far more complex than the assumptions underwriting this U.S. president’s “America first” posture. Most fundamentally, if managed judiciously, multilateral and bilateral policy approaches can complement each other rather than undercut the pursuit of sound statecraft and strategy.

In some ways, the pace of change in U.S. foreign policy in Asia during the Trump administration has been startling. So, too, have that policy’s manifest contradictions. Three days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—the main economic pillar of Barack Obama’s “rebalancing” strategy that was designed to enmesh U.S. trading interests with key Asia-Pacific economies. During a regional tour in November 2017, Trump subsequently proclaimed that the United States was pursuing a “free and open Indo-Pacific” doctrine.3 Although the current U.S. administration would deny such is the case, this posture actually incorporates several key aspects of the rebalancing strategy. These include containing a nuclear North Korea, strengthening U.S. alliances with traditional Indo-Pacific security partners (while emphasizing allied defense spending and burden-sharing more than Obama did), and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in Pacific waters (and thus balancing growing Chinese offshore military power).4

However, clear differences have emerged between Trump’s and Obama’s regional policy approaches to Asia. Trump has modulated the promotion of common values and norms as underlying U.S. trade and security relations. He has clearly disdained the efficacy of multilateralism as a means of negotiating future regional order–building, preferring to focus on bilateral negotiations and agreements. He has cultivated closer personal ties with regional autocrats such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, China’s Xi Jinping, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. He has done so with the expectation that stronger bilateral relations with their regimes would immediately [End Page 11] generate more favorable outcomes for U.S. trade, investment, and regional security policy.

Any credibility gained by Trump reaching out to Asian autocrats has been compromised by his tendency...


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