By Invitation

Is US engagement back on track in East Asia?

Trump's recent Asia visit suggests new momentum in US-Asia ties


That American presidential visits to East Asia always assume special significance hardly needs to be said. After all, the US has played the role of linchpin of regional peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War. Even so, seldom has an American presidential trip to the region prompted as much anticipation and apprehension as Mr Donald Trump's recently-concluded 12-day tour: his first as president, and his longest overseas trip thus far.

Right up to the eve of his trip, many were still lamenting the absence of a coherent strategy of engagement that weaved together the tapestry of American strategic, economic, diplomatic and political interests in East Asia. Others freted about more prosaic concerns, such as the President's sudden tweets and tendency to veer off-script. Anxiety over these portents were rendered more acute by the distractions of controversies bedevilling his administration.

Among most of the mainstream American media, one strand of opinion continues to prevail: whether it is healthcare, tax reform, or migration policy, Mr Trump is simply incapable of doing anything right. Murmurs of dissent within his own party continue to smart, and investigations over possible Russian interference in the presidential election, a matter which reared its head on the sidelines of Saturday's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting and that hangs like the sword of Damocles over his administration, continue to gather pace.

Not unlike criticisms of his domestic policies, much has been made of Mr Trump's missteps in foreign policy as well. The President has been taken to task for reneging on the Paris climate accords, cozying up to the Saudi regime, alienating European allies and engaging in petulant name-calling with North Korea's Mr Kim Jong Un.

So, against this pattern of apparent dysfunction, what did Mr Trump's first foray into the region accomplish? At first glance, perhaps not much, since he failed to extract concrete commitments from China to intensify pressure on North Korea and was very much an isolated bystander as regional leaders pressed ahead on free trade talks in Danang and Manila. Nevertheless, I would suggest that despite this, the trip - and Mr Trump's conduct - provided hopeful signs that there is some method to the apparent madness, at least as far as East Asia is concerned. For starters, adjusting his schedule at the behest of his advisers so as to participate in the East Asia Summit - after expressing intent to skip the meeting - suggests he may actually listen to those around him, a character trait his detractors would doubtless be quick to deny. We should further recognise that this is the longest that an American president has spent in Asia since George H.W. Bush haplessly passed out and vomited on his Japanese host during an exhausting tour of Asia in 1992.

What probably also escapes attention is the fact that this trip caps a year of extensive engagement with Asia. Consider a comparison of the number of visits senior Obama and Trump administration officials (president, vice-president, secretaries of state, defence, and commerce, US trade representative, and national security adviser) made to East Asia in their first year of office. Between January and November 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency, a total of seven visits were made. In comparison, 12 visits to the region (excluding India) have been made by Trump administration office holders since January this year.

In keeping with the President's penchant for personalising bilateral relationships, considerable attention was understandably given to rapport with his counterparts. Mr Trump is known to have developed good personal chemistry with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and, intriguingly, also his Chinese counterpart, Mr Xi Jinping. It is clear that he sets great store by these personal relationships, even if, especially in the case of Mr Xi, their countries remain deeply at odds on a range of issues.

During Mr Trump's "state visit plus" to Beijing, bilateral differences were kept at a prudent remove as he spoke effusively of Mr Xi, calling him "a very special man". Rather than inveigh against China for "raping" the American economy as he did on the campaign trail, Mr Trump instead shifted blame for the more than US$350 billion (S$476 billion) trade deficit with China to his predecessors in the White House. In return, Mr Xi proclaimed that bilateral ties were at "a new historic starting point", a view echoed enthusiastically in the Chinese press and social media. Whether it was diplomatic sangfroid or an expression of genuine rapport, the fact is that both leaders acquitted themselves well despite the very real danger that discussions could have easily been derailed.



Progress was also made on the crafting of a strategic edifice around which Asia policy will be shaped. Thus far, the administration has yet to complete its national security strategy within 150 days of assuming office, as mandated by Congress. Following an initial announcement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the occasion of his own trip to India last month, Mr Trump articulated a presumptive strategy for Asia predicated on the concept of a "free and open Indo-Pacific", which will likely displace Barack Obama's "Pivot to Asia" - in form if not in substance - in Washington's policy narrative.

A curious, if somewhat familiar, choice of nomenclature for an Asia policy since it omits mention of "Asia", the pronouncement was somewhat short on details. But early indicators are clear that enhanced engagement on the security front will be key.

Seized by North Korea's nuclear and missile development programme, previous statements made on the campaign trail hinting that the US would reconsider its commitments to the security of East Asian allies now sound like a thing of the dim and distant past. Instead, American military activities have been ramped up, not only on the Korean peninsula but also in the South China Sea, with a stronger naval presence and greater frequency of freedom of navigation operations. Both these issues featured prominently in Mr Trump's discussions throughout his Asia trip, and are likely to stay at the top of the administration's Asia agenda for some time.

Although Mr Trump also offered to mediate the South China Sea disputes, it is not likely to be taken up. Meanwhile, the administration has expressed its intention to press for the lifting of the sequestration cap for defence so as to free up resources to support this enhanced military presence.

If security commitments appear unequivocal, other measures paint a more ambiguous picture, and will prompt concern. In contrast to the evident meeting of minds on a security agenda, Mr Trump struck a discordant note at Apec when he rehearsed his protectionist proclivities on free trade even as the 11 remaining signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreed to move ahead on a new iteration of the initiative, sans American participation. This mood even crept into the Da Nang Declaration, which included references to "importance of non-discriminatory, reciprocal and mutually advantageous trade and investment frameworks," "unfair trade practices" and "unfair trade subsidies".

That the Trump administration will continue to pursue a mercantilist approach to trade with little appetite for economic multilateralism, there should be no doubt. Lest we think this is a view unique to him, the President has assembled a team of senior trade officials who not only share his protectionist instincts, but are also working ceaselessly to translate them into policy.

Yet, cognizant of the potential game-changing effect of China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, Mr Trump and Mr Abe also sought the opportunity of their Tokyo meeting to launch several infrastructure investment initiatives aimed at providing much-needed alternative financing for regional states starved of options and pulled slowly but surely into the Chinese orbit. How all this squares with a "free and open" Indo-Pacific then, will be something that will continue to exercise the region.

Another potentially significant strategic takeaway from the trip was the Trump administration's revival of the Quadrilateral Dialogue comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia, which met at the level of senior officials on the sidelines of the Asean summits in Manila.

When originally mooted by Japan in 2007, it was understandably viewed with suspicion from Beijing for its obliquely anti-China slant. The current iteration of the "Quad" is likely to elicit a similar response from a China considerably more influential, powerful and ambitious than it was a decade ago, even if the this meeting convened only at senior officials' level. Should the "Quad" succeed, it might also pose a diplomatic problem for Asean, for while some member states may quietly welcome it, the fact that it is being pursued parallel to existing Asean-led institutions raises the larger question of Asean's centrality in the regional security architecture.

A final issue bears reflection. The outcome of Mr Trump's Asia trip hints at an emerging picture of a US pushback against growing Chinese assertiveness in the region in both the security and economic arenas, although in the latter instance, it is doing so without multilateral mechanisms. Whether or not this effort will succeed is, of course, a different matter. But, taken together with other issues, it does indicate that the Trump administration is aware it is in the American interest to remain active in, and attentive to, the region.

Much has been made of Asia policy drift and disconnect in the first year of the embattled Trump presidency. To be sure, there is still much to be done, and indeed, American foreign policy-making under Mr Trump might still remain unorthodox, even erratic. But even the harshest critic must admit that his Asia trip could have gone much worse. All things being equal, Mr Trump's extended tour of East Asia has offered up the prospect of a new momentum to US engagement in the region.

• Joseph Chinyong Liow is dean and professor of comparative and international politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'Is US engagement back on track in East Asia?'. Subscribe