At the beginning of his first term, in 2009, President Obama coined himself “America’s first Pacific president,”[i] marking a shift in the nation’s foreign policy priorities. This became widely known as the ‘pivot to Asia’. Asian countries were promising the fastest economic growth and the most pressing security concerns, earning the attention of policymakers and U.S. citizens. In the end, the pivot received mixed reviews, with many saying it did not achieve its intended goals, and left other regions of the world in the lurch, such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe.[ii]
Just this week, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said that the pivot to Asia was officially over. She affirmed that the new administration will remain engaged in the region, particularly on matters such as trade and security, but what form it will take is still up for consideration. One thing is clear: the Trump administration wants to distance itself from Obama’s legacy in the region.[iii] The Trans-Pacific Partnership, notable for opening up trade relations with countries in the region other than China, was scrapped within the first week of the presidential transition. Now, many eyes in the policy world are on the new administration’s interactions and intentions for our relationship with China.
Despite its hesitance to continue former president Obama’s rebalance to the Asian Pacific, the new administration has shown immediate interest in the region, sending two of its cabinet members to visit Asia within the first one hundred days. In early February, Secretary of Defense Mattis took his first overseas trip to Asia, making stops in U.S. allied countries South Korea and Japan to discuss key topics such as the South China Sea and North Korean missile tests. However, while in Tokyo, Secretary Mattis made controversial remarks, declaring that the U.S. would defend Japan’s claim on the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea, to which China has laid its own claim. The Chinese responded severely to these remarks, advising the U.S. to, essentially, mind its own business. They followed up on this response by sailing a Chinese warship past the islands as a show of military strength.
In addition to Secretary Mattis’s remarks, the U.S. has recently taken hard stances on several security issues through force projection. In 2016, the Obama administration agreed to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea in the wake of security concerns from North Korea, including multiple test launches of missile systems. Despite China’s consistent opposition to the missile defense system’s placement, the first shipment of parts arrived in South Korea in early March.[iv] The Trump administration has shown no intention of removing the missile system to appease China, but rather has reaffirmed its placement and a resolve to deter North Korea in further developing and testing its arms. Additionally, in February, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to the South China Sea to permanently patrol and conduct “routine operations” in the contentious waters. Many of these operations are freedom of navigation operations, most of which seek to guarantee the South China Sea as an open maritime trade route.[v]
This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his turn visiting the region, slipping off quietly with only one reporter and only one press conference planned during his visit. He plans to stop in South Korea, Japan, and China.[vi] North Korea and the South China Sea are sure to dominate conversation during his visit. Already during his visit to South Korea, Secretary Tillerson has refused to negotiate with the North Korean government, stating that Trump administration might be forced to take preemptive action “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level. He even listed possible policy options should the U.S. need to take action, including vigorous sanctions, elevating missile defenses, intensifying cyber warfare, and even striking North Korea’s nuclear sites.[vii]
While the Asia pivot may be officially over, President Trump’s administration has clearly made Asia an early priority. We have yet to see China and the U.S. meet and collaborate on these security issues, leaving the U.S. to act unilaterally. However, there is still hope for positive China-U.S. relations during the Trump administration. As we continue to strengthen our defense stances and force projection in the region, we also seek to increase trade with China, and the relationship hangs in the balance.
China was excluded from TPP, and in the wake of its disintegration, it is possible that a new trade deal could emerge that would benefit and reframe trade in the region with China at the lead, setting the rules. Without a new trade agreement in the region, the US could lose out on valuable trade with two of the world’s most powerful economies, China and Japan. However, to create such an agreement, the US will support continued growth in the Chinese economy, leading to a possible increase in Chinese confidence in other areas, such as security.
Regarding security, there are many areas that invite significant Chinese-American cooperation. While there is little chance of the U.S. removing the recently placed defense precautions of THAAD or the USS Carl Vinson, joint exercises to build trust in the region could prevent potential conflict from occurring. China has already agreed to suspend all imports of coal from North Korea, a key part of the North Korean economy, to express its disapproval of the recent missile tests.[viii]
Given the remarks of both Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson, the Trump Administration seems willing to take hard line stances in security, using force projection and even military power to pursue US interests in the region. However, in order to improve relations with China, the US will need to also pursue increased trade, which may prove difficult given President Trump’s campaign promises of protectionist trade policies. Although the administration has been shy to reveal its policy strategy for Asia so far, we can hope that a clearer, more detailed strategy will be revealed in the wake of these visits.