Trump’s incomplete Asia strategy

Nick Bisley

It took some time, but the United States has officially embraced a new approach toward Asia — the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy. First named during US President Donald Trump’s speech at APEC in late 2017, the strategy remained little more than an idea for nearly 18 months. FOIP has finally been fleshed out through a US Department of Defense report released on 1 June as well as the actions of the United States in the region.

At first glance, the strategy looks like a slightly more muscular version of what the United States has been doing for many decades. Washington wants to retain its pre-eminent position in the region, and it aims to do so in broadly the same ways — through the pursuit of military primacy in tandem with an extensive array of better-networked alliances and strategic partnerships. This is not too far from what Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush might have done had they won the US election in 2016.

The strategy is notable for explicating the United States’ approach to China. Washington’s China policy has long been described as ‘congagement’ — an awkward compromise in strategic thinking between engaging and containing China. But this administration plainly sees China as a threat that has to be seen off.

Given that Trump has long railed against what he thinks is the ‘free-ride’ that South Korea and Japan receive, many wondered what Trump might do with US policy in Asia. FOIP shows that, at least in its geopolitical dimensions, the United States is opting to maintain its long-term posture of primacy.

But this geopolitical strategy marks a break with the past because of its disconnect from economic policy. The stable and prosperous regional order of the past, centred around United States primacy, was made possible by strong alignment of economic and political interests. The United States played a central role not only as a keeper of the peace, but also as a key export market and source of FDI for the region.

China’s rise has re-aligned the strategic and economic interests in Asia. Most countries in the region have significantly greater trading relations with China than they do with the United States, although the United States remains a very significant source of investment. This does not mean that these countries will simply shift their allegiances from Washington to Beijing. But if Washington wants to continue to play a dominant role in Asia and to push back on China it has to recognise that its partners and allies no longer have as neatly linked interests as they had in the past.

This drove the Obama administration to make the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the centrepiece of its Asia rebalance. It was the means through which Washington was trying to reconnect the political and the economic in a world where China had become Asia’s top trading economy.

One of the very first acts of the Trump administration was to withdraw the United States from the TPP. But it is not just that the FOIP lacks an economic dimension. The crude mercantilism of Washington’s broader approach to trade in the region is discordant with the notion of a ‘free and open’ regional order.

The Trump administration is currently engaged in an escalating trade war with China. It has also placed significant tariffs on Japan, renegotiated its trade agreement with South Korea and imposed tariffs on Vietnam, a country that has been actively moving into Washington’s orbit. Washington has even mused openly about slapping tariffs on Australia.

Under this administration, trade and strategic policy operate on completely different vectors. This approach is out of step with the conceptual underpinnings of a ‘free and open’ regional order and badly misunderstands the intertwined nature of national interests in an era of globalisation.

The region now faces twin revisionist powers. China wants to re-organise the strategic order to become more Sino-centric. The United States is walking away from the positive-sum approach of the past seven decades and instead uses its economic might to drive short-term bargains in its favour.

Regional powers are trying to figure out how to respond to this twin revisionism. In the short term, they are hedging and trying to work out how long the tensions in US policy between the long-term forces of continuity and the short-term mercantilist instincts of Trump will last. The revitalisation of the TPP by regional powers shows initiative during complex times. Yet, the lesser powers remain subject to the growing turbulence created by great power rivalry.

As currently pursued, FOIP is a gambit that frames geopolitical competition with China. In theory, it has an economic dimension. But, so far, that has entailed a mercantilism that will hurt Washington’s prospects in the long term. It is also unsettling allies and partners and contributing to the growing politicisation of the region’s economic relations.

Until the United States develops an economic approach to the region that links its objectives with its policy means, Washington will find it extremely difficult to achieve the goal of a free and open region.

Nick Bisley is Head of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University