Trump, China and the Asia-Pacific: a changing diplomatic balance?

Fabio Rondini

The recent events concerning the Asia-Pacific seem able to redefine the regional balance of power consolidated since many decades. Several factors pose serious questions about the future of the alliances built by the United States in this area. Fore example, the relations between Australia and the United States after the election of Donald Trump, the re-approaching between Washington and China caused by the North Korean missile tests or the ambitious Chinese project “One Belt One Road”. Many elements indicate that the new republican administration has still not developed a clear strategy for the Asia-Pacific and that China is trying to expand its influence in this region.

The “Pivot to Asia” and its implications
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the legacy of the “hub and spokes” structure continued to exist and proved to be the framework for maintaining the influence of Washington in Eastern Asia and for consolidating relations with strategic partners such as Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Japan, South Korea or Taiwan. The decision to keep alive such system can be compared to the continuing presence of NATO in Europe, both legitimated by the share of the same goal: protecting countries from any external aggression. This characteristic prevented these structures from disappearing after the end of the Cold War, especially those operating in the Asia Pacific with the ambitious rearmament and the economic activism of China on the background. Such economic and military Chinese commitment has raised concerns from many US allies in the region, demanding a more robust military presence from Washington. The ANZUS, for instance, has been able to turn from an anti-Soviet alliance to an anti-Chinese one.

This diplomatic condition has found the strong opposition of Beijing, which has always seen these security frameworks as political and military tools for reducing its influence in the region. Especially, the former US President Barack Obama and its administration have appeared to be much more committed to the Eastern Asia than his predecessors and, in the occasion of a speech delivered by Obama in front of the Australian Parliament on November 17th 2011, he emphasized the posture of the United States as a “Pacific Power”. Also the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has strengthen this posture by elaborating the “Pivot to Asia” concept (1), which would have become one of the most specific aspects of the foreign policy of the Obama administration. Undoubtedly, security issues played a decisive role in focusing the attention of the US diplomacy in the Asia Pacific region, but the American presence in these areas should have managed not only military aspects, but also economics and trade. Such position should have been proved by the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP), which should have reassured Chinese officials that the main reason for the continuing presence of Washington in Eastern Asia was not the containment of the Chinese influence, but the need of a broader economic cooperation in the area. Whereas, the exclusion of China itself from the TPP, alongside with the strengthening of military ties with both long-lasting and new partners (from Japan to Australia, from Philippines to South Korea, or recently Vietnam) raised concerns of the Beijing establishment over the American strategy, considered to be in clear contrast with its interests (2). This perception has lead to the strong measures adopted by China in order to claim the contested Senkaku islands with Japan in the South-Eastern Chinese Sea. Among them, Beijing officials decided to send two naval units in 2012 in order to reaffirm the Chinese sovereignty on this strategic archipelago, protected by the American navy. In other words, according to the position expressed by Shi Yinhong, Foreign Policy Advisor of the Chinese Council of State, due to the “Pivot to Asia”, the “rivalry between the United States and China has increased and the strategic cooperation has been gradually jeopardizing”(3).

The new US administration: chaotic and unpredictable diplomacy?
During the last few months, many factors and events have generated a kind of American “chaotic diplomacy” in the Asia-Pacific, leading even experts to deem the “Pivot to Asia” as dead.

For example, the election of Donald Trump to the White House with his “America First” posture or the declarations made by the Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton that “the Pivot to Asia” was just a pillar of the Obama foreign policy and that the new administration would have its own formulations. Moreover, the criticism expressed by Trump on the need of the US to continue to protect many allies in the Asia-Pacific (notably Japan or Australia) should have suggested that the American commitment would have changed, thus redefining the role of the “hub and spokes” structure.
The first months of the new Republican presidency have proven to be characterized by a diplomatic “unpredictable” approach, leading to a political scenario more and more difficult to examine. Firstly, President Trump has strongly criticized China during his electoral campaign, blaming on Beijing of manipulating its currency in order to stimulate its exportations and affecting the American balance of payments. Secondly, he expressed doubts about the priority to defend many US allies like Japan or South Korea, claiming that they were “free-riding on the US security commitment in the region”(4) and demanding a more equitable burden sharing. Thirdly, after being elected, he has questioned the necessity of the “One China Policy” by trying to restoring relations with the Chinese Republic of Taiwan. Fourthly, according to news, he would have had a serious dispute with the Australian Prime Minister Turnbull over migration policy, before inviting him in New York and reaffirming the historic ties linking these two countries since 1945. Fifthly, in his first 100 days as President, he quickly invited both the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in official visits in the United States and he reassured the latter about the willingness of Washington to prosecute its commitment in the region. Moreover, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed the strength of US-South Korean alliance in the occasion of their visit in Seoul on 2nd February 2017 (5).
Despite the electoral campaign isolationist attitude, apparently the attention of President Trump is not to be declining.

The Trump strategy and the chaotic balance in the Asia Pacific
Given such an “unpredictable approach”, what are the main points of the Trump foreign policy on Asia? First of all, a protectionist attitude in the next future, as shown by the withdrawal of the United States from the TPP, one of the first foreign policy decisions adopted by Trump.

Not only the Obama administration made so many efforts to accomplish this treaty of multilateral cooperation, but also the decision to reject such agreement marked the most important point of discontinuity compared to the previous administration. As a matter of fact, Obama elevated the multilateral economic integration of the Asia-Pacific to a fundamental pillar for commonly-shared prosperity. Undoubtedly, the withdrawal from TPP, a decision clearly explained even by electoral promises, does not imply an immediate handover of regional economic leadership to China, but it will surely affect the US credibility in the area, potentially causing the US shift toward protectionism, affect the overall TPP utility and, finally, create serious obstacles to the achievement of a potential Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific in the long run (6).

Although it was not created for pursuing this goal, the importance of TPP was due to its role as a kind of “containment pact” able to secure the US political presence in the Pacific in the long run and reaffirm trade/economic relations between Washington and its allies.

Moreover, tension arising from the assertiveness of North Korea and from its nuclear tests seems another crucial point of the new US administration foreign policy.

Such issue is threatening especially Japan and South Korea. Even though Trump had declared his intention to delegate the responsibility for the North Korean situation to the Chinese Government in the electoral campaign, the first days of the Trump presidency have indicated that Pyongyang would have been treated as a top priority of the Republican administration, as shown by the sending of military ships of 11th April. Unlike his predecessors and according to the declarations of Tillerson (7), Trump’s attitude towards North Korea appears moving from a “strategic patience” rather than the “strategic impatience”.

To sum up, the Trump administration shows some drastic changes in both the diplomatic style and the substance of the US foreign relations. Three elements are particularly evident in the Trump foreign policy:
1) A clear difference between the America First posture shown by Donald Trump in the electoral campaign and the concrete first measures adopted since he took office in January;
2) The lack of a strategic project for the Asia-Pacific for the long run;
3) A difficulty in elaborating a coherent American foreign policy able to face the security requests from allies and the need of the Chinese cooperation for the Korean issue.

The aspects cited above may be clearly visible also for three cases: the relations between Washington and Canberra, the US-Japanese relations and, more importantly, the Chinese programme “One Belt One Road” (OBOR).

The absence of a clear American strategy in the region is firstly evident in the lack of a strong US response to the Chinese economic activism in the area, able to develop a wide range of economic cooperation initiatives. The greatest economic plan China has recently launched is the One Belt One Road Forum, which took place in Beijing the 14th of May, hosting 1,200 delegates from 110 countries, the ambitious OBOR programme aimed at providing a great investment plan of 1 trillion $ for infrastructures to connect Middle East, Asia and Europe. The OBOR programme not only is a proof of the Chinese expansion in the area, but it also underlines the ambivalent position of US allies. Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries surely appear to be attracted by the chance of improving economic relations with China; on the other hand, they seem feared of the military posture of Beijing. The dispute over the Senkaku islands, the construction of new military bases in the Southern Chinese Sea are just some cases proving the military tensions arising in the area, not only with Japan, but also with other countries, worried about the future consequences of the Chinese military growth.

Given the lack of an American strategy for counterbalance the Chinese activism, Beijing is trying to “steal the mantle” to Washington in the region (8). The OBOR is just a recent example of the strong trade and economic commitment that China has been deploying in the last few years. In 2015 Beijing took initiative in promoting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank -without the U.S. participation- providing half of the $100 billion of the initial capital. Finally, since 2014 China plays a crucial role in leading the New Development Bank founded with among the BRICS countries (9). Such political and economic initiatives, together with the recent meeting of the 10 ASEAN members (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam) held between the 28th and 29th of April, are supposed to overturn the diplomatic status of the Asian region against the American interests, by opening to a more positive attitude regarding the Chinese claims in the Southern Chinese Sea. In particular, the Philippines, a historic US ally, have shown to be turned from positive relations with Washington into a more favorable attitude toward China. After the visit of the Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte in October 2016 in Beijing, relations between these two countries has been gradually improving with an increase of agricultural trade and million dollars of Chinese loans granted to Manila for the next few years (10). On a broader scale, China is actually in a leading position for negotiations set up for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, gathering not only the ASEAN members, but also Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. With this project, China is clearly pushing into a regional integration a group of countries accounting for half of the world population and one third of global GPD (11).

Another case of potential redefinition of alliances in the Asia-Pacific is the US-Japanese relations. After decades of cooperation, in many electoral speeches Trump emphasized the need of pushing Tokyo into rearming and proposed that Japan should pay the right share for its own security, instead of depending from the US forces. The unexpected Trump victory in the election of November and the quick abandonment of the TPP has encouraged the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to manage new plans for securing good relations between Tokyo and Washington for the next years. Unlike the previous years of the Obama administration, the relations between the United States and Japan could be transformed.

As said above, the Trump attitude toward many allies in foreign policy has significantly changed after he took office. This assumption is valid also for Japan. During the first meeting between Shinzo Abe the US President held in Washington on the 10th February, the two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers also the Senkaku islands, a great achievement for Japan. Moreover, Trump confirmed the US support against the North Korean threat and discussed a new bilateral trade agreement able to replace the TPP (12). However, it appears difficult for Japan or any other country to build a durable dialogue with an administration, that is elevating the unpredictable diplomacy to a fundamental pillar of its foreign policy.

Another significant example of dynamism in the area is the Australian case. After the dispute of January with Prime Minister Turnbull, Trump decided to invite him in the United States in the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and they reaffirmed the long-lasting tie linking their two countries throughout several decades. On the contrary, it is important to bear in mind that Trump has been elected on the basis of a trade protectionism and a sort of nationalism on foreign policy, two elements able to damage the Australian political and economic interests, strictly interdependent with international trade (13). According to experts, even Australia, an historic US partner, is attracted by the chance of cooperating with China, but it also needs the military assistance of Washington. Data show that China is by far the main Australian trade partner, accounting 33% of the overall exports in 2015 (14). Some experts claim that Australia will be forced sooner or later to choose between these two great powers, but according to James Curran, Professor of History at the Sydney University, Canberra should try to preserve good relations with both of them. He argues that the relations between Canberra and Washington are still wealthy, but some important questions must be solved, firstly the need for Australia of maintaining constructive ties with its main economic partner (China) and its great military ally (the United States). “The more difficult question for Australia is how does it help the US accept that China has its own strategic sphere in Asia and that shouldn't be seen as a threat”, he said.

Conclusion: what future for US alliances?
According to experts, the South Eastern Asia situation is changing and it is step-by-step reaching the point whereby states are unwilling to promote or strengthen relations with the United States, especially in the security domain, for fear of the economics retribution of China (15). Many US allies fear the military expansion of China, but at the same time, they seem attracted by a cooperation with it. Conversely, it appears that the Trump strategy for the Asia-Pacific is characterized by specific elements: a lack of a clear strategy, the need of the Chinese diplomatic support for solving the Korean crisis and the focus on bilateral trade agreements after the withdrawal of Washington from the TTP. The Asia Pacific has seen a jumble of messages about the Washington strategy in the form of narrow policy decisions, messages, tweets and public statements, which often raise more question than answers (16). Thus, a partially inconsistent posture is shown by both the United States and their allies and such condition could jeopardize the effectiveness of the “hub and spokes” system.

The “unpredictable kissingerian” diplomacy (17), adopted by Trump over China primary for solving the Korean crisis and creating a brick in the Pyongyang-Beijing axis, seems affected by a short term approach. The Korean crisis, a top priority for the Department of State, is supposed to overshadow the initially strong US policy against the Chinese claims over the contested islands and on trade issues (18). Moreover, such strategy is not properly facing the strong activism of Beijing in the region, potentially able to redefine the traditional “hub and spokes” system, create a new Chinese order by fulfilling the partial void left from the withdrawal from the TPP and affecting the US influence in the region (19). Without the US participation to the TPP, it would be even more complex to prevent their allies from falling in the new geopolitical and economic Chinese sphere.

In addition, Beijing could benefit from great attention paid by Trump to the Middle East for achieving more influence on the region. Such “distraction” could even force many allies to invest in their own rearming, notably Japan, which has been discussing a reform of article 9 of its constitution for a long time. In conclusion, the American strategy is supposed to manage the Chinese activism in order to guarantee a solid presence in the region, preserve alliances but also to maintain constructive cooperation with Beijing.


Notes
(1) Barack Obama speech at the Australian Parliament, White House, November 17 2011.
(2) Axel Berkofsky, Il pivot to Asia di Washington: risultati e impatti in Il Mondo di Obama, a cura di Paolo Magri, Piccola Biblioteca Mondadori, 2016.
Gianluca Pastori, “Dopo il‘pivot to Asia’ un vero cambio di rotta?”, ISPI online, February 21 2017.
http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/dopo-il-pivot-asia-un-vero-cambio-di-rotta-16346.
(3) Ibid, p. 52.
(4) Benjamin Lee, Trump’s first 100 days in Asia, The Diplomat, April 28 2017.
(5) Readout of Secretary Mattis' Meetings with ROK Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn and ROK National Security Advisor Kim Kwan-Jin, Press Operation, US Department of Defense, February 2th 2017.
https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1069090/readout-of-secretary-mattis-meetings-with-rok-acting-president-and-prime-minist/
(6) Benjamin Lee, Trump’s first 100 days…cit.
(7) Christopher Hill, Tillerson goes to Asia, Real Clear World, March 29 2017, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/tillerson-trip-asia-north-korea-policy-by-christopher-r-hill-2017-03.
(8) Ely Ratner, Samir Kunar, The United States is losing Asia to China, Foreign Policy, 12th May 2017.
(9) Ibid…cit.
(10) Francesco Tortora, Cina, ASEAN,‘Via della Seta’ e prospettive imminenti, L’Indro, 17th May 2017.
(11) Ely Ratner, Samir Kunar, The United States is losing Asia to China…cit.
(12) Alan Dupont, When Malcom Turnbull meets Donald Trump, The Australian, May 1st 2017, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/when-malcolm-turnbull-meets-donald-trump/news-story/da381e38a2b5a17a29991ec6833a0c9a
(13) Japan-US Relations: Adapting to ‘New Management’, Will reassurances from the Abe-Trump meeting last? Yukari Easton, February 14, 2017
(14) Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/trade-investment/Documents/monthly-trade-data.pdf
(15) Ely Ratner, Samir Kunar, The United States is losing Asia to China…cit.
(16) Abraham M. Denmark, Mattis should explain Trump’s Asia Pacific strategy, if one exists, Foreign Policy, 1 June 2017.
(17) Davide Borsani, Una Realpolitik kissingeriana per l’America di Trump?, Osservatorio di Politica Internazionale, 24th January 2017. (18) Benjamin Lee, Trump’s first 100 days in Asia…cit. (19) Dan de Luce, Keith Johnson, In the South China Sea, the US is struggling to halt Beijing’s advance, Foreign Poicy, May 25 2017.

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