Four months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Asia has begun crafting a geopolitical response to the challenges he presents. U.S. influence remains vital in maintaining regional stability, but Asian countries are seeking options as doubts over Washington’s future dependability emerge. WPR has compiled key reading on Asia’s new directions in the Trump era.
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A New Beginning
Taking Stock of the U.S. Rebalance and the Contest for Influence in Asia
As Trump prepared to assume the presidency in January, the U.S. “rebalance” toward Asia continued apace. At the time, Timothy R. Heath warned of the dramatic policy changes that loomed. Asia had already been less than reassured by the Obama administration’s rebalance, owing less to any U.S. shortcoming than to the potency of a rising China.
In Asia, some see Trump’s worldview as a chance to expand Asian ownership of the regional agenda and a respite from U.S. preaching about democracy and human rights. But, as Ellen Laipson wrote in March, there are weighty downsides, including Trump’s protectionist views on trade and the possibility of being left alone to deal with an assertive China.
Will China Take the Lead?
As Trump further distances Washington from its role as leader of the global order, many observers have speculated that China could fill the resulting vacuum. But as Richard Gowan argued in March, there are still many reasons why Beijing might not want to depose the U.S. at the apex of the multilateral system.
With the Paris accord on the line, Trump has already ceded U.S. leadership on climate change, and China, the world’s largest emitter, is willing to pick up the mantle. But it’s still too soon to breathe easy, Theresa Lou and Sagatom Saha explained in April, as the nature of China’s burgeoning leadership role remains an open question.
The Korean Peninsula on Edge
China has faced increased pressure since Trump took office to help end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But, as Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in May, while Beijing may have a North Korea problem regarding its leverage over Kim Jong Un’s regime, North Korea has a China problem, too. Pyongyang is acutely aware that its dependence on a single geopolitical ally and trade partner leaves it deeply vulnerable to outside pressure.
Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in have criticized the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD on the Korean peninsula. What, exactly, is THAAD, and why is it so controversial? In a May interview, Joshua Pollack explained what’s at stake.
Frustrated by the failure of international sanctions to stem North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, the Trump administration has made it clear that all options are on the table, including military intervention. In March, Steven Metz assessed the possible outcomes of a U.S. attack, and, while concluding that most of them are negative, outlined why armed action might still be necessary.
Japan Hedges Its Bets
Trump’s election victory was met with caution around the world, as America’s friends and rivals tried to gauge the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. In December, Jonathan Berkshire Miller looked at the response in Japan—the world’s third-largest economy and a close U.S. ally in Asia—where Trump’s win immediately elicited reflection and an intense effort to shore up national interests.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s weeklong tour of Southeast Asia and Australia in January was an opportunity to stress the importance of defending international norms and laws, especially in the South China Sea. Writing at the time, Jonathan Berkshire Miller explained why the trip was planned in relative haste after Trump’s election.
Japan was skeptical of reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. withdrew, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now pressing ahead to finalize the deal with the 10 other signatory states. In May, Jonathan Berkshire Miller explored how recent moves by Washington and Beijing have changed Japan’s calculus.
The Afghanistan Quagmire
Trump remained relatively quiet about Afghanistan before targeting the self-proclaimed Islamic State with a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, or “MOAB,” in April. U.S. officials have since described military operations against the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan as a top priority. But Colin Cookman argued last month that the threat posed by the Islamic State to the Afghan government and U.S. interests is, in reality, quite small compared to the Taliban insurgency.
Reports of Chinese security forces operating in Afghanistan have prompted speculation about whether Beijing has crossed another important threshold in its policy on overseas military activity. In March, Andrew Small looked at the factors behind the military uptick, and showed why they portend more Chinese counterterrorism activities in future.
After its disastrous intervention some decades ago, Russia has re-emerged as an important power broker in Afghanistan, wrote Jeffrey Mankoff in February. Its willingness to work with the Taliban stems from a perception that the U.S.-led occupation is becoming less effective and could be further wound down under Trump, leaving the wider region to deal with the fallout.
For more analysis on Asia in the Trump Era, check out our Asia-Pacific regional homepage.