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Can ‘America first’ thinking restore US leadership in Asia?

  • November 11, 2017
  • , Nikkei Asian Review , 10:00
  • English Press

DANANG, Vietnam — Even after U.S. President Donald Trump at last made clear that America intends to stay involved in the Asia-Pacific region, it is far from obvious whether bilateral deals that put “America first” will be enough to curb China’s efforts to expand its influence in the area.


“Today, I am here to offer a renewed partnership with America to work together to strengthen the bonds of friendship and commerce between all of the nations of the Indo-Pacific,” Trump said Friday in a speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO summit.


The president said that on his Asia tour, “I’ve had the honor of sharing our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.” He made his first attempt at presenting a comprehensive Asia policy, assuring observers that the U.S. will indeed maintain its regional presence.


But Trump’s vision differs markedly from that of predecessor Barack Obama, who favored such multilateral frameworks as the Trans-Pacific Partnership to build American influence in Asia.


“I will make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation that wants to be our partner and that will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade,” Trump said. In the same speech, he said that “I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”


Halfway there


As the U.S. gives more weight to its own interests, China has ambitions on becoming regional hegemon. The peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific belongs to the people of Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech after Trump’s.


Militarily, America still outmuscles Xi’s China. This is a point of pride for Trump, who has often spoken of maintaining “peace through strength.” Naval exercises involving three U.S. aircraft carriers in the western Pacific starting Nov. 11 represent an unusually big show of force directed at North Korea. The U.S. has also held freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea four times since Trump took office in January, staring down Beijing’s growing presence in those waters.


This active military approach presents another contrast with the Obama administration, which pursued a hands-off strategy of “strategic patience” with North Korea and declined on numerous opportunities to send the U.S. Navy on similar sail-throughs.


By contrast, the Trump administration’s economic diplomacy in Asia, a necessary companion to security efforts, has been scant so far. China has overtaken the U.S. and Japan since the 2008 financial crisis as the top source of imports for major Southeast Asian nations the Philippines and Thailand and has mounted an investment offensive in the region. Yet Trump ceded American leadership on rules for regional trade and investment by quickly taking the U.S. out of the TPP, a trade agreement designed to counter growing Chinese economic influence.


This is not to say that American concerns about China’s dominance have abated. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned in October against letting the Asia-Pacific “become a region of disorder, conflict and predatory economics.” Of particular concern is the Belt and Road initiative — a plan to expand Chinese economic influence throughout Asia by funding massive infrastructure projects in emerging nations. If these countries fall behind on debt, China could claim large stakes in the projects.


But how the U.S. will create economic order without the help of the TPP is an open question, according to Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Reluctant cooperation


The Chinese economy is growing at a nearly 7% annual clip and by some estimates could surpass America as the world’s largest in the 2030s. It is only natural that Asia will become more dependent upon the country as this occurs.


But as its maritime expansion has made clear, Beijing does not fear friction with neighbors, leaving many leery of its growing prominence. “If [Trump] wants to shore up East Asia’s increasingly fragile peace, stability and prosperity, he must relax his ‘America First’ stance and pay serious attention to other issues during talks with regional leaders,” Thai newspaper The Nation said in an online editorial dated Thursday.


The president’s repeated references to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” this week could be a sign of progress on this front. His administration aims to work with countries including Australia and India that are similarly committed to such values as the rule of law to preserve free trade and maritime security — a strategy originally suggested by Japan. “It means a lot that we were able to pull the Trump administration into a multilateral arrangement,” an official at the Japanese foreign ministry said.


The administration’s Asia policy still lacks specifics, giving Japan and other Asian countries a chance to shape it. Protecting U.S. leadership in Asia long-term will require Trump to grasp and react to how China’s neighbors see the powerful country: as both an emerging threat and a source of economic opportunity.

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