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What does US President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to Make America Great Again mean? Nowhere is speculation greater than for the Asian–Pacific region.
Trump’s flippant and dismissive rhetoric early in his campaign regarding US alliances in Asia – including suggestions that Japan and South Korea pay the full cost of US forces stationed there or risk possible abandonment – radically contradicted not only the Obama administration’s Rebalance to Asia policy, but decades of US security policy continuity in the region.
There is a pervasive uncertainty surrounding Trump’s defence policy in the Asia–Pacific, and a prudent consensus among many of Washington’s regional Asian defence specialists that there is precious little data to go on.
However, a rough speculative outline of a Trump Asia–Pacific defence policy has been sketched out in several key speeches and policy documents that mark a distinct break from Trump’s early iconoclastic campaign remarks.
This policy appears to be grounded in a centre–right enhancement of the defence and security component of the Obama’s Rebalance to Asia, rather than a wholesale rejection of this policy.
To date, the single most important document outlining the president’s vision for the future of US defence policy in Asia is the aptly titled Donald Trump's Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia Pacific.
The piece, by Trump advisers Alex Gray and Peter Navarro, is written as a critical response to Obama’s rebalance to Asia. It amounts to a public show of support for the initial idea behind the rebalance – enhancing the signal to US allies and competitors of continued robust and long-term American engagement in the Asia–Pacific region. However, there is a stinging rebuke of the alleged failure to implement it properly.
At its core, it is a critique of the credibility of the Rebalance to Asia concept, an accusation of the failure of the Obama administration to effectively signal deterrence to US strategic competitors (China) and adversaries (North Korea) and a reassurance to its allies in Asia.
In the Texan idiom found in one commentary on the previous US administration’s rebalance, it was ‘big hat, no cattle,’ meaning that the rebalance policy rhetoric did not match its reality.
The Trump criticism comes in two parts. First, the incoming president’s team accuses the Obama administration of failing to provide the military hardware necessary to signal sufficient seriousness of purpose for the rebalance.
It dismisses the policy’s Littoral Combat Ship rotations in Singapore or the deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia as token gestures. It also argues that in combination with a critically small military and shrinking defence budget, the Obama White House had committed a double failure of ‘talking loudly but carrying a small stick’.
Trump promises to fix this problem with a massive Reagan-like military build-up of every branch of the US armed forces at an estimated cost of an additional $300 billion over his first four years in office.
Second, Trump advisers have been highly critical of what they perceive to be the negative political consequences and damage done by the Obama administration to US prestige and credibility in Asia where commitments have not, apparently, been upheld and rhetoric not matched with action.
For instance, Trump’s team links Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s shift away from the US towards Beijing to Obama’s alleged inaction in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis between China and the Philippines.
Trump’s team have also echoed long-standing centre–right criticism from US Asia-policy specialists that Obama’s infamous failure to punish Syria for crossing his own chemical weapons ‘red line’ created perceptions in Beijing and elsewhere in Asia that the US president was unwilling to back up US policy with the threat of military force.
In stark contrast to this, the Trump team’s acceptance of the diplomatic telephone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen – not to mention Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks earlier this month about blocking China’s access to their de facto island possessions in the South China Sea – is touted as signalling a much greater risk appetite in confronting Beijing’s political revisionism in the region.
Overall, it is unwise to try to predict the content of Trump’s Asia–Pacific defence policy. The new president's temperament and his interest in leveraging ‘unpredictability’ for strategic gain makes any such effort especially fraught.
Nevertheless, judging from the Trump team’s key defence and Asia policy documents and recent rhetoric, it seems likely that his administration will emphasise a much more assertive military posture in the Asia–Pacific region than was earlier believed. None of this indicates a sharp break away from the Rebalance to Asia policy.
Indeed, for defence hawks, Trump’s policy prescriptions for the region will actually revitalise and save it. However, this may also come with an increased tolerance for injecting confrontation and risk into the US–China bilateral relationship.
In the meantime, it is safe to say that in the Asia–Pacific at least, Trump has changed his tone from an unpredictable isolationist to that of an unpredictable hawk.
Dr Patrick Cullen is a Senior Researcher in the Security and Defence Group at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
Banner image: The shape of things to come? Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, accompanied by Secretary-General of National Security Council Joseph Wu and Foreign Minister David Lee, during a phone call in December to then President-elect Donald Trump. The call angered Beijing. Courtesy of Taiwanese President's Office/Wikimedia.