Richard Fontaine, Daniel Kliman
A positive, holistic American narrative would influence decisions across Asia, and serve U.S. interests in the bargain.
Nearly a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration has started to craft a strategic narrative for its approach to Asia. This is atypical: it took Barack Obama nearly three years to unveil his “rebalance” to the region. George W. Bush succeeded in advancing U.S. relations in Asia arguably despite never articulating an explicit narrative.
The administration’s instinct here is the right one. Given regional questions about U.S. staying power, the administration’s economic philosophy, and American will to exert leadership, it would certainly help to articulate an overarching vision for how Washington sees Asia and America’s role there. In its absence, as the North Korean threat and bilateral trade deficits absorb the president’s public focus, these two issues alone could easily emerge as America’s de facto narrative in Asia.
Yet establishing such a new Asia narrative—as sketched out by Trump’s inaugural trip to the region and in his new National Security Strategy—remains a work in progress. The administration’s emphasis on military strength is relatively clear, and will resonate with U.S. allies and partners in Asia. But the economic elements of its emerging narrative remain inadequate, and its focus on competition with China has merit but does not on its own suffice. America’s engagement with Asia should be predicated on more than zero-sum competition and economic nationalism.
Today, countries across the region are today making bets about the future contours of their geopolitical environment. A positive, holistic American narrative would influence decisions across Asia, and serve U.S. interests in the bargain. And it would counter other narratives—such as an inevitably dominant China, a distracted Washington and a more anarchic region—that will ultimately be less hospitable to U.S. interests.
Looking backward, President Obama presided over a mix of successes and failures in Asia, but his administration settled on a compelling overall narrative of American engagement. Encompassing a series of high-profile diplomatic, economic and military initiatives, the Obama narrative enabled senior U.S. leaders to clearly convey enduring American commitment to the world’s most dynamic region.