2018/39, 10 April 2018
Donald Trump’s election as President in November 2016 caused great consternation among allies and friends of the US. His ‘’America First’’ slogan portended retreat from America’s alliances, trade protectionism and pull back from multilateral trade agreements.
However his first year in office ending in January 2018, in retrospect, did not look as bad as originally feared. Apart from trade issues, US political and security engagement with Asia remained intact, with the President even paying considerable attention to Southeast Asia. Many felt that pragmatic senior civilian and military officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis who helmed key policy positions, had a moderating influence on Trump.
But then, in March 2018 Trump removed Tillerson and McMaster, and replaced them with hardliners — former CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and the hawkish John Bolton as National Security Advisor. Their thinking about the world is said to resonate more with Trump’s own. With an economic team ideologically attuned to Trump already flirting with trade wars, these new appointments have raised more questions about the Administration’s foreign policies.
Was Trump’s first year in office just an interregnum to acquire the political confidence to revert to his campaign pledges? Is the hawkish rhetoric on Iran a prelude to involvement in a new war in the Middle East to the detriment of the Asian power balance? Will a ‘’grand bargain’’ on Korea, if attainable, provide cover for partial strategic retrenchment from East Asia — bearing in mind Trump’s election campaign statements about allowing South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Does the trade and economic tussle with China foreshadow a bargain or is it the beginning of efforts to slow down the rise of a perceived dangerous rival plotting to oust the US from this region?
Yet the barrage of criticism of the President from the American liberal media tends to obscure the considerable strategic method behind his apparent tactical madness. He probably does not want war though the possibility of stumbling into one through misjudgement cannot entirely be ruled out.
It may be useful to view the current noise and rhetoric within the framework of longer-term fundamentals. First, a tectonic shift in power dynamics in Asia has been underway because of the erosion of US hegemony by the rise of Asian powers, especially China. Shifts of such magnitude are bound to cause much uncertainty as states make adjustments to the changes. However the US decline from a position of big preponderance over others does not automatically translate into Chinese dominance.
Second, the century-long, some would say much longer, US policy of not allowing another power to dominate East Asia (now read the Indo-Pacific) almost certainly remains intact. It will not require a huge US strategic superiority to maintain, but will still need a significant US strategic role and political will. In the inter-war years the US did not have a strategic preponderance in East Asia, but a rough balance of power in a multi-polar system ensured that no single power was dominant—until the Royal Navy’s diversion to the war in Europe from 1939 and America’s oil embargo on Japan led Tokyo to embark upon its gamble in December 1941.
The passing of hegemony will inevitably require changes to US strategy and eventually disposition of forces. Most likely, Washington will seek to forge a balance of power arrangement in the Indo-Pacific region. One can see this in efforts to get allies to shoulder more of the strategic burden; to shape an informal Quad of US, Japan, Australia and Japan; and to build defence capacities of friendly countries.
These changes will be playing out over the coming years and will have important implications for the region. It is entirely possible that the US will have a narrower conception of its interests and leadership role. But nobody knows at this stage how much narrower, though most countries assume it will not be so narrow as to preclude a still significant strategic role.
Mr Daljit Singh is Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator, Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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