The Trump Administration and Great Power Competition in Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump inspect the guard of honor in Beijing, 8 November 2017.


Hosei University Professor Mori Satoru analyzes the United States’ approach to Asia under President Donald Trump.


Donald Trump’s trip to Asia in November and the National Security Strategy (NSS) published in December expressed American willingness to engage Asia. What are some of the major elements of Trump’s approach to Asia? How will it impact the Indo-Pacific region?

First of all, the NSS declared that great power competition returned, and discarded what one scholar called the “convergence myth” — the belief that if engaged, China and Russia would come to integrate themselves into the US-led liberal international order. It is true that the NSS mentions that competition “does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict.” It also states that the intentions of China and Russia “are not necessarily fixed. The United States stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries.” Nevertheless, the prevailing view throughout the NSS is that great power competition with “revisionist powers” such as China and Russia is back, and that political, economic, and military competitions are ultimately about “fundamental political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies,” a statement reminiscent of the Truman Doctrine of 1947.

For Asia, this means that there is likely to be much higher American tolerance for tension between the United States and China. Donald Trump made clear during his Asia trip in November that his priorities are North Korea and trade. If he does not get sufficient Chinese cooperation on these issues, he will likely apply pressure rather than provide inducements to obtain Chinese cooperation.

Secondly, US allies and partners are considered as security partners and economic competitors at the same time. In the context of security, US allies “magnify” American power, and they are considered “critical to responding to mutual threats, such as North Korea, and preserving our mutual interests in the Indo-Pacific region.” Also, the United States expects allies and partners “to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.” More specifically, it expects US allies “to modernize, acquire necessary capabilities, improve readiness, expand the size of their forces, and affirm the political will to win.” This is likely to mean that the Trump administration would be stepping up US arms sales to Asian allies and security partners. Thus, we should expect to see an increase of defense build-up by US allies and partners in the region as well as by Taiwan since the new NSS explicitly states that it “will maintain… commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”

In the economic context, US allies and partners in Asia will be expected to conclude bilateral trade agreements on a fair and reciprocal basis. The primary objective of the administration is reducing the US trade deficit, and here, the Trump administration “will compete with like-minded states in the economic domain — particularly where trade imbalances exist — while recognizing that competition is healthy when nations share values and build fair and reciprocal relationships.” The idea is to seek “equal and reliable access for American exports,” and “build a network of states dedicated to free markets and protected from forces that would subvert their sovereignty.” The Trump administration could use trade enforcement actions as a means of applying pressure to Asian allies and partners. The demand to renegotiate the free trade agreement with South Korea during a period of heightened tension is a case in point.

Thirdly, the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, despite its nascent character, is essentially about competition with China over regional influence. Many observers appeared to have been initially perplexed by Trump’s remarks at the Da Nang APEC speech regarding the “Indo-Pacific dream” that emphasized the notion of fair and reciprocal trade. However, the NSS’s regional section on the Indo-Pacific stated that “Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.” It also stated that the United States “will engage industrialized democracies and other like-minded states to defend against economic aggression, in all its forms, that threatens our common prosperity and security.”

These statements that express geopolitical and geoeconomic viewpoints indicate that the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy would be aimed at countering the current regional trend toward Chinese economic domination through the revamping of American economic statecraft including development finance. The fact that the NSS explicitly mentions “quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India” is an indication that the Trump administration would also seek to leverage its major Asian partners’ resources in an effort to counterbalance China through capacity-building of various kinds for regional states.

So what does it all add up to for Asia? The Trump administration’s competitive approach toward China may initially appear to be overly hawkish for certain states. However, the same approach would probably appear quite different when regional states begin to feel and see the consequences of domination by a confident China. If China exercises its power in a manner that continues to aggravate insecurity and fear in the region, the Trump approach will appear increasingly attractive to many states in the region. Almost one year into the Trump administration, we are beginning to see something quite different from what we initially expected — a US willing to provide strategic space for those who desire to maintain sovereignty and independence in an age of confident and expanding China.


MORI Satoru is a professor in the Faculty of Law at Hosei University.



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