Restarting the Rebalance to Asia

The U.S. pivot to the Indo-Asia-Pacific (IAP) region, some believe, is in danger of “death by President Trump.” While it is true that his comments on the region prior to his inauguration generated real concerns about his commitment to the security of key Asian allies, like South Korea and Japan, reports of the Pacific pivot’s imminent death are greatly exaggerated. Mr. Trump should recommit to the pivot (or “rebalance”) to the IAP for the same reason that the Obama team designated it as its top priority: the fundamental shift in economic, political and military power from the West to the East. The United States can benefit from this shift if it takes the initiative.  On the other hand, as Kurt Campbell recently argued in The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia: “… hesitance or inattention at this critical transition moment may allow the most dynamic region in the world to irrevocably drift in dangerous and counterproductive directions on many important issues.” Given that China will continue to be at the core of this regional transformation, of course, and helping IAP governments to deal with growing Chinese assertiveness should not be seen as an attempt by the U.S. to perpetuate American dominance in the IAP region.

Rather, as Hugh White argues in The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power, it will help Washington’s regional allies to “make room for China” in the IAP by promoting balanced policies that are neither gratuitously provocative nor unconditionally accommodating.

The Trump administration must remember a few key points should it accept the challenge of prioritizing the IAP. First, President Trump must recognize that restarting the Pacific pivot will not be easy. When the Obama administration began to focus on the Western Pacific in 2011, it soon discovered that it was “pushing on open doors.” Since then, the momentum favoring the pivot has been broken, as was seen in China’s impressive recruitment of 57 governments for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This stands in stark contrast to the failed U.S. effort to launch the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Moreover, China’s ongoing military modernization program raises new concerns among American defense planners and Washington’s regional security partners about Beijing’s anti-access and area denial capabilities. President Trump will also have to cope with problematic political developments in key IAP governments, including the recent crisis in U.S.-Philippine relations, the souring of relations between Washington and Bangkok since the Thai military coup of May 2014, and the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, whose policies helped to  strengthen her nation’s relations with the United States.

For the new president whose stated priorities are mainly domestic, it may be tempting for him to respond to these problems in the IAP region by adopting a posture of insular hostility. To prepare for this eventuality, President Trump should work with a small team of advisers to develop a National Security Strategy prioritizing the IAP over other regions. This team should also be responsible for routinely reminding the rest of the President’s staff of the strategic importance of the IAP as inboxes fill up with competing issues.

U.S.-China relations must be at the center of any new pivot strategy, but for Washington to productively engage Beijing, the Trump administration will need the active support of governments across the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The San Francisco network of U.S.-sponsored alliances and security agreements will continue to be the bedrock of the outreach campaign to IAP nations. In light of China’s continuing defense modernization efforts and its increasingly assertive behavior towards its neighbors, the United States will have to continue to improve elements of its military presence in the IAP region.

However, the Trump administration will need more than the impressive military assets of the Pacific Command to sustain and expand its regional influence. Diplomatic, informational, and economic instruments of power will also be required to reassure our Asian allies about America’s reliability and commitment. This necessitates reforms that increase the role of various civilian agencies, most notably the State Department. However, such reforms seem unlikely. To date, President Trump has given no indication that he has an interest in these types of institutional reforms. In fact, he has already announced his support for a dramatic increase in the U.S. defense budget ($54 billion) and a 28% reduction in the State Department’s budget.

A successful rebalance to the IAP also requires the support of America’s traditional European allies. In its efforts to communicate the importance of the pivot, the Obama administration created some unnecessary tension among its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, especially because statements about the pivot coincided with strong American criticisms of many NATO allies for their limited financial contributions to the alliance. The Trump administration would be well advised to view Europe-China relations as an enrichment of Western leverage toward Beijing.

While it is true that Europe is the end point of Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, it is also the logical jumping off point for Washington’s “New Silk Road” campaign. Furthermore, the EU is already ahead of Washington in some forms of institutional cooperation with China. For instance, the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, in effect since 2003, addresses a range of issues including climate change and global economic governance. Furthermore, since 2010, the leaders of the EU member states have been meeting with the leaders of China in annual summits. As the United States moves forward with its campaign of engagement with China, the importance of Europe as an economic and political actor will become more and more apparent.

Unlike Europe, which can serve as an asset in America’s pivot campaign, the Middle East represents a drain and a distraction for Washington. President Trump is unlikely to replicate former President Obama’s efforts to keep the Middle East at arms-length. Indeed, President Trump has made it clear that a top foreign policy priority will be to “knock out ISIS,” even hinting at the deployment of 30,000 U.S. troops to accomplish this.

However, President Trump has also stated that “everybody that’s touched the Middle East, they’ve gotten bogged down.” Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, two former Obama administration advisers,  explained why former President Obama was so cautious about involvement in the Middle East: “At the same time that the salience of the Middle East to U.S. policy is waning and the interests of the United States and its traditional partners in the Middle East are diverging, the potential for American military power to effect major change in the region is also diminishing.” President Trump should carefully heed his predecessor’s warning that the United States is “missing the boat… [if] the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.” As difficult as it will be for President Trump and his advisers to resist demands for regime change and nation-building in the Middle East, they will have to stay disciplined if they wish to continue to prioritize the IAP region.

The Trump administration cannot afford to “miss the boat” in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The good news is that most governments in the region still see the United States as their best insurance against China’s aggrandizement, North Korea’s unpredictability, and other lesser forms of instability. Furthermore, the recent decline in the Chinese economy should give Washington and its regional allies some breathing space for adjusting to the rise of China. President Trump should take advantage of this breathing space to work with China and America’s security partners in the IAP to cultivate something approximating a regional concert system which can facilitate cooperation on matters of common interest, such as economic growth and climate change, while avoiding a military confrontation that would be catastrophic for all of the governments in the IAP region.