Asian Affairs

Asian Affairs

We still don’t know how ‘America First’ will play out in Asia

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo. Reuters/pool

Last Thursday in Tokyo, Rex Tillerson broke his silence as US secretary of state, saying that the US needed a “different approach” to North Korea, though declining to elaborate on the details.

Since his confirmation in January, Tillerson had not spoken on the record until his north-east Asian tour. A tour the world watched closely eager to find out just how the unorthodox presidency of Donald J. Trump will turn its “America First” rhetoric into foreign policy reality.

Anticipating just what Trump might do with American policy in Asia is difficult. But I believe there will be three broad forces that will be the key catalysts in his approach to the region.

In contrast to his predecessor’s fondness for a tempered liberal internationalism, Trump’s foreign policy will be defined by a transactional realism. Washington will act on a fairly hard-headed assessment of the short-term benefits to the US of any particular choice it has to make. This means that allies won’t be cut off at the knees, but they will have a much more self-interested alliance partner who will drive a harder bargain than in the past.

Where the Obama administration took a broad view of the forms of national power – seeing development, diplomacy, and defence as equivalent levers of influence – Trump’s administration sees military force as the most important instrument at its disposal. This is driven by a Reagan era “peace through strength” vision in which military power is the key to national success. The budget proposal to cut 29% from the State Department and to ramp up defence spending by 9% is only the most obvious evidence of this preference.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, Trump puts a high value on unpredictability. He openly subscribes to a “madman” theory of foreign policy, which is predicated on the assumption that you are at an advantage when your opponents have no idea how you will act. Trump will put a premium on being unorthodox as he believes it will strengthen America’s position in the world.

Taken together, this looks set to bring about significant change in how the US will behave in Asia. From a China policy that mixes economic engagement with military containment, Trump can be expected to contest Chinese influence robustly.

Allies can expect to have to do and pay for more in their relations with the US, or risk getting the cold shoulder, while regional institutions like APEC and the East Asia Summit will be given short shrift because they don’t offer clear and immediate advantage to Washington.

The US will deliberately act in hard to predict ways. We have already seen this in when he took Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulatory phone call. The first such contact since severing diplomatic ties in the 1970s. But it is likely to happen elsewhere, such as on the Korean peninsula or in the South China Sea. This will leave all in the region deeply uncertain about just where they stand. Meanwhile, America’s economic policy will be narrowly self-interested and unconcerned with collateral damage caused by its nationalistic impulses. A trade war with China cannot be ruled out.

Yet, there is a significant divide within the US administration between the ideologically oriented group centred around White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and the more mainstream Republican appointees to the Cabinet, such as Defence Secretary James Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The ideologues see China as a strategic threat that must be confronted: they advocate economic nationalism, and want to take a wrecking ball to traditional US policy that they believe has hollowed out America’s middle class. The others follow a more conventional path, embracing a more open approach to international economic relations. They want to engage China as much as limit its geopolitical influence, and see value in providing alliance guarantees beyond short term gains. How this divide is resolved will ultimately determine the character of US Asia policy.

The Secretary of State’s trip should have shed light on that character. It occurred under the shadow of a North Korea that had conducted a nuclear test in February and missile tests earlier in the month.

In Beijing, Tillerson emphasised cooperation with China on North Korea, and in a press conference rather oddly parroted the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred way of describing the Sino-American relationship.

Some saw this as a rookie error by a Secretary not versed in the subtle complexities of foreign policy; others perceived it as a way of giving Xi Jinping “face” in public while reportedly privately pushing China to get tough on North Korea. But ultimately, we are no better off than we were before about what US regional strategy will be.

Will the US contest Chinese influence and assertiveness in Asia? Will there be a more muscular approach to North Korea? Will the ideologues prevail over the status quo forces in cabinet? We still don’t know.

Tillerson’s general approach and demeanour reflects the more moderate inclinations in Washington, yet doubts remain about his influence and capacity to shape policy. He cannot appoint his own staff, and plainly failed to advocate for his department’s interests when Trump’s budget was drawn up.

The Secretary may finally be visible and audible, but the fact that we still don’t know what Washington intends or who is driving policy is indicative of the disruption Trump’s presidency is causing to the region.

Not since President Nixon has the US approach to Asia been so uncertain and unclear. Tillerson had a chance to clarify matters, but this most silent of Secretaries of State did not do so. And as dependants on the US we must continue to wait to find out just what the US wants from the region. Life in Asia has fundamentally changed.

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