Does the administration have a coherent vision for the region?
President Trump and his administration have devoted roughly as much time and attention to the Asia-Pacific as have previous administrations. Nevertheless, a perception is emerging of America’s benign neglect of the region. Concerns over U.S. reliability and the president’s judgment are hitting alarming levels. According to an international Pew poll in June, confidence in Trump to “do the right thing” in world affairs fell 55 points in Australia, 54 points in Japan, and 71 points in South Korea compared to the end of the Obama administration.
A variety of factors explain this troubling trend. The president’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and later the Paris climate accord, severely dented perceptions of U.S. reliability. The president’s attacks on U.S. allies triggered anxieties about the credibility of U.S. commitments. The administration’s focus on North Korea and failure to articulate a regional strategy have generated grumblings that Washington only has a North Korea policy for Asia, not a coherent vision for the region. The president’s transactional style—suggesting that Taiwan be used as leverage with mainland China, that Seoul pay for a U.S. missile-defense system, that Beijing would get a better deal on trade if it delivered on North Korea—also has fed a narrative that the United States will make any deal for the right price.
Meanwhile, China has placed itself at the center of every significant regional initiative, including negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s activism has magnified perceptions of a diminishing U.S. role in Asia.
While some may shrug off the significance of these shifts as growing pains in the transition to an “America First” foreign policy, the long-term costs to American interests could be major. For decades, the United States has adopted strategies to preserve access and prevent any competing power from dominating the region at America’s expense.