At the end of the first month of his presidency, how should we anticipate Trump’s post “pivot to Asia” policy toward East Asia? What matters: his personnel picks, his tweets and statements, meetings and calls with foreign leaders, or the intersection of US actions and those of countries in East Asia? Many US analysts are not wedded to all of the pivot, but this was seen largely as a bipartisan foreign policy in need of new vigor. Is Trump likely to reinvigorate it or scrap the pivot for something new?
In my view, there were six pillars of the pivot: 1) strengthening and expanding both alliances and security partnerships led by a more substantial US military presence; 2) setting the rules of free trade with 11 states in TPP while inviting China to join at a later time if it is willing to reform its economy accordingly; 3) managing the divide between Japan and South Korea as critical for strategic coordination in Northeast Asia and beyond; 4) containing and alleviating the growing North Korean threat by accepting the potential of the Six-Party Talks and a major role for China as long as it would prioritize denuclearization while preventing this issue from undermining US-ROK and US-Japan relations and preparing for tougher sanctions; 5) solidifying the US presence in Asia’s southern tier through close strategic cooperation with ASEAN, Australia, and India while preventing China from unilaterally controlling the South China Sea; and 6) keeping Taiwan from becoming a source of open conflict without standing aloof from any Chinese attempt to bully it. Although some of these pillars are treated as containment by the PRC, collectively they are a strategy to manage its rise, not to contain it, and to cooperate bilaterally and multilaterally with countries intent on sustaining relations with it, not for unilateral disruption of Sino-US ties.
In 2016, Obama appeared inclined to adjust the pivot, and there was talk among the supporters of Hillary Clinton of a pivot 2.0. Given China’s aggressive conduct in the South China and East China seas as well as North Korea’s growing military threat, it was widely understood that the security pillar of the pivot needed strengthening. As for the TPP, it was on precarious ground due to political rhetoric linking it to job loss and inequality, and Clinton probably would not have rescued it as such, even if some aspects might have been salvaged with appeals for US leadership in regionalism. If 2016 was a rare good year for Japan-ROK relations and US-led trilateralism, few had any doubt that further US efforts were needed. The greatest impatience centered on the inadequacy of the collective response—especially China’s—to North Korea amid signs that China would be bypassed, not only through the deployment of THAAD in South Korea but also with secondary sanctions on Chinese firms and talk of possible preemption if the threat to the US mainland became imminent. Second, and most galling to US policymakers, was China’s conduct in the South China Sea, but with ASEAN’s solidarity broken, it was not clear what response would be suitable except further freedom of navigation operations. Finally, with Tsai Ing-wen elected president of Taiwan and China applying more pressure, US policy was more prone to adjustment.
Trump’s pre-inauguration tweets and early moves suggested mindfulness of some of these issues. He would redouble the US military buildup while pressuring allies to do more with threats of pullbacks if they did not. He abandoned TPP while declaring a more adversarial economic relationship with China. The Japan-ROK divide grew wider without any sign of what he would do, although Seoul had to be aware that if progressives not only torpedoed trilateralism but also rejected THAAD and tried to engage with North Korea on terms that did not address denuclearization Trump was likely to respond harshly. Patience for Six-Party Talks, China’s refusal to put great pressure on North Korea, and Southeast Asian states’ deference to China were also unlikely to last. Finally, Trump made clear that his Taiwan policy would break from US policy over four decades. Did these positions hold through the first month in office, and what do they and adjustments to them mean for the legacy of the pivot?
By mid-February after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Trump had bonded on their security agendas and on the golf course, there was no doubt that Obama’s success in strengthening security ties with Japan was advancing on steroids. Moreover, reports of the visit of Secretary of Defense Mattis to Japan pointed to more robust freedom of operation exercises in the South China Sea, as desired by Abe. Although there was backtracking in mid-February from earlier comments about departing in Taiwan ties from the “one-China” policy and challenging China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea, which would have been sharp departures from Obama’s moves, Trump conveyed an image of pressing China harder than Obama had, if in some ways that Clinton would likely have been inclined to pursue too. The telephone conversation between Trump and Xi Jinping just prior to Abe’s visit had a calming effect with its acceptance of the “one-China” policy and the message that Trump would not try to isolate China, but it did not allay the impression of rockier Sino-US relations ahead. The “pivot” had not been directly challenged in the first month.
The coming months are more likely to strain Sino-US relations than to test their potential for cooperation. The South China Sea was already looking like a zone of early confrontation, as US freedom of navigation operations increased and China built up more military installations. The US-Japan alliance relationship, given the special bond between Trump and Abe, could be enhanced in ways that China would protest. THAAD deployment and missile defense triangularity are poised to receive a new impetus, much to China’s opposition. Indeed, any Chinese retaliation against South Korea for such moves could well invite US steps against China. The odds for a downturn in Sino-US relations are much higher than for any upturn in the coming spring. Yet, this would be less a result of Trump’s role than an indication of where this bilateral relationship was heading regardless of who became the US leader.
The Korean Peninsula and Trump’s Policy Choices
Of course, the number one problem Trump inherited in East Asia, if not the world, is the growing threat to the US mainland from North Korea. While he may have wanted to conduct a policy review before tackling this issue, Trump was confronted, while Abe was with him at dinner, with news of a mid-range missile test close to Japan. Four responses could be anticipated, none not in keeping with what Obama would likely have done, but the balance among them may reflect Trump’s greater assertiveness. First, the issue would be addressed at the Security Council with a likelihood of less patience for China’s response on the need to tighten sanctions. Second, pressure for closer trilateral military coordination with Seoul and Tokyo would likely follow, as patience for Seoul dragging its feet on ROK-Japan relations would be in short supply. Third, unilateral sanctions against Chinese firms, which had begun slowly in 2016, could now multiply, disregarding the anger they would arouse in Beijing. Finally, the THAAD deployment and other military measures—even raising the possibility of preemption—could be advanced. Even as many had anticipated early trouble in Sino-US relations over currency charges, tariffs, and Taiwan, the first time bomb in this relationship loomed over North Korea, much as it would have under Clinton.
China’s decision to stop coal imports from North Korea raised uncertainty about the degree of cooperation to be expected. Was it honoring the promise of a 2017 quota in line with Security Council Resolution 2321, after large-scale imports at the start of the year reached the ceiling? Was it a quick response to the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, defying China’s protection of the North Korean leader’s half-brother? Or was it a message to Trump that China was ready to cooperate on North Korea if US policy was also flexible? If the last objective were possible, would US diplomacy test China’s notion of flexibility? It seemed unlikely, in the near future at least, given the marginal role of the State Department and the absence of personnel there with this portfolio and given the lack of leadership in South Korea to help in this endeavor.
In place of the “pivot to Asia” we can expect a “pivot to counterterrorism.” Asia is an afterthought in Trump’s early appointments apart from trade, where allies join US potential adversaries on the front lines. Yet, South Korea is unlikely to be among the early trade targets. Instead, US-ROK coordination must be renewed as a new Korean president takes office and Trump finally unifies policy through a team of officials with responsibility for Asia (not easy to do given Trump’s divergent choices). Were Pyongyang concerned about its image in Seoul, it could have avoided the February 14 intermediate-range missile test and murder of Kim Jong-nam. Were Beijing truly concerned about its image, it could have reacted less harshly to THAAD. Instead, it is likely that South Korea, even under progressives, will not do as some in Washington fear and go soft on Pyongyang and bow to Beijing. Meanwhile, Trump is unlikely to do what some US observers fear with talks to Pyongyang, bypassing Seoul. What is harder to coordinate is proactive moves to deal with North Korean ICBMs reaching the point of being able to hit the continental United States, including GSOMIA and missile defense at a new level. While South Koreans have hardened their posture toward North Korea and China, they have also split sharply over Japan, leaving the progressives inclined to push for some adjustment in the December 28, 2015 deal.
The normal policy review process for North Korea seems unlikely to be critical as Trump decides how to proceed. He has been relatively quiet on this threat since he was elected and has not suggested what process he will utilize to decide on policy. Now that China has curtailed coal imports, he may choose to test its cooperation. The problem is a combination of his abject ignorance, cocksure confidence, and hawkish tendencies intersecting with a crisis environment that demands steady hands. Even if the United States had a window for diplomacy, involving multiple states, Trump would not be the person to pursue it effectively. However, since the North Korean situation falls under the rubric of a military threat, it is possible that Trump would let the generals he has appointed lead the way. In today’s conditions, they may be the ones who could find the right blend of firmness and clarity with China as well as close trust with South Korea and Japan to deal with security well.
In short, what matters most is Trump’s temperament and ideology, which override his inclination to make deals. This does not bode well for East Asian policy. Yet, his priorities lie elsewhere, and he has decided to rely heavily on generals for security policy with priorities elsewhere, which make East Asia a secondary concern. Thus, much of the Obama pivot, as it was evolving, may well endure. Moreover, reliance on generals is likely to smooth US relations with its two main allies in Asia, who have long trusted the US armed forces. To the extent that North Korea provokes, Trump’s team may be better suited to deal with this sort of crisis than with any other around the world. However, if China builds on its cutoff of coal imports to show interest, at last, in diplomacy to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons rather than to damage the US-ROK alliance, that would pose a problem for which Trump seems unprepared.