In his widely touted foreign-policy address today, sponsored by the Center for the National Interest, Donald Trump wandered all over the map, literally and figuratively. Amid swipes at the D.C. foreign-policy establishment (“the old people don’t know what they’re doing”), and ritual incantations that he/America would “win” on various foreign policy issues should he become president, it was striking how little Trump had to say about Asia. Given that the Indo-Pacific comprises half the world, 40 percent of global output, and has the world’s largest militaries, Trump’s few lines about Asia were concerning for what they left out and unconvincing in what they said. Trump remains fixated on America’s trade deficit with China, and said nothing about the benefits American consumers have received from cheaper products over the past decades. Indeed, Trump fulminated against free trade, as is his wont, without explaining how a more protectionist policy would benefit either consumers or the world.
When he did mention trade, it was to refer to it as a weapon to wield against China in relation to North Korea. His criticism of the Obama administration’s lack of policy toward North Korea is on the mark, the more so as we learn that Pyongyang has significantly increased its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, but to think that China either holds the magic key in relation to North Korea or can be bludgeoned into helping us, is wildly unrealistic. An American policy of targeted sanctions against the Kim family is far more likely to either bring the regime to the table or start causing stresses that may lead to opportunities for change. Beyond that, though, is the specter of igniting a trade war with one of our biggest trading partners over a non-existent chance to control a fanatical, hermit regime. Trump seems oblivious to the larger implications of such a move.
But what about China’s actual provocation in the South China Sea, where it is militarizing its manmade islands, and considering dredging up contested territory near the Philippines? With U.S. Navy ships now hesitantly carrying out occasional freedom of navigation operations, Trump gives no indication of how he would maintain the balance of power in Asia, trade wars aside. And as for his comment that, should Beijing not start playing nice in Asia, then “America and China will have to go their separate ways,” well, that’s open for anyone to take a guess at the meaning.
That brings up the question of allies. Our bilateral alliances in Asia have long been in our interest, to support stable democracies and those moving towards greater liberalization, and to ensure the free flow of goods crucial to the global economy. Yes, the United States has shouldered most of the weight of the burden, but that is what superpowers do, especially when they benefit as much as anyone from the global system they have created. Trump’s threats to cut our allies loose if they don’t pony up more for defense is both short-sighted and self-defeating. Instead of noting that Japan had recently increased its defense spending and passed new laws to allow it to use its military more freely abroad, or that South Korea has agreed to a phased transfer of wartime operational control to its military, Trump made a blanket statement that U.S. allies feel “no obligation” to live up to their commitments to us. For Trump to blatantly ignore the reality of how our Asian alliances work, not to mention insult our allies, and then claim that America under him would once again be a “reliable ally,” is dangerously irresponsible.
No one pretends that U.S. foreign policy is perfect, either under this president or any other. But Trump’s global ramblings gave no policy specifics for how he would maintain stability in Asia, or showed any real understanding of Asia’s complexity and importance to the U.S. future. Getting China right increasingly may mean dealing with a declining China, and ensuring that territorial disputes do not spiral out of control requires a firm yet subtle U.S. policy of supporting allies and flexibly and quickly responding to Chinese provocation. As for North Korea, well, there are some things one can’t blame even Donald Trump for not knowing how to fix.