Associate Professor Matthew Sussex
A central concern surrounding Donald Trump's ascension to the United States presidency has been that Asia's rivalries could be exacerbated by his penchant for bombast, provocation, and even outright lies. Certainly, his casual acquaintance with the truth is a defining feature of Trump’s first 100 days in office, manifesting in both the President’s own pronouncements as well as those of his key advisers. It was equally apparent in wrangling over the size of the Inauguration Day crowd, Kellyanne Conway’s references to ‘alternative facts’, or Trump’s contentious Executive Order promulgating a ‘Muslim ban’.
Trump's apparent disregard for accepted reality is vexing for foreign and security policy analysts seeking to explain the core components of his strategic vision. Above all, they look for clarity, accuracy and coherence when assessing any case for changes to past practice.
More important, though, is the fact that the post-truth era is unlikely to alter significantly while Trump remains president. In fact, he needs it to keep his base united, relying on counter-establishment narratives to draw together those feeling betrayed by globalisation’s false promise with what remains of the core Republican Right.
If this is the case, then domestic pull factors will likely remain stronger than international ones for Trump. In turn, that raises the likelihood he will preference local politics over international affairs – with potentially chaotic effects for alliances, rules, and the security policy postures of key players in the Asian centre of geostrategic gravity. Without a restrained US balancing role a variety of troubling scenarios emerge. When one considers that Trump has promised to dismantle the liberal order, the prospects for regional rivalry increase.
Past American practice has been to combine military-security arrangements with (more or less) accepted principles around open trade regionalism, and institutions of regional governance that perform ‘co-binding’ functions to deepen surety and assurance. This system has been highly successful.
The United States-Japan Mutual Security Treaty has moderated potentially deeper Sino-Japanese tensions. In turn, Tokyo’s careful integration in the regional economic order has helped ameliorate historical memories of Japanese expansionism. Although frequently derided as sclerotic, the Six Party process has contributed to stability by spreading the responsibility for managing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The Taiwan Relations Act reinforces the status quo via strategic ambiguity, establishing clear ‘red-lines’ for Beijing and Taipei over sovereignty and independence. Even the war on terror, which many worried would cause divergent expectations about the purposes of US alliances in Asia, curtailed Chinese efforts to alter regional dynamics through ‘smart power’. And the flagging liberal trading order would have been boosted had Barack Obama’s TPP initiative survived his departure from the White House.
However, we should be careful not to fall into the trap of making grandiose forecasts based on Trump’s unpredictability. Some 100 days is hardly long enough for any United States administration to formulate and begin implementing a coherent regional security strategy. Trump’s own team has also been exceptionally slow in nominating individuals to key posts. This has resulted in a dearth of capacity on addressing questions of foreign and security policy.
In the absence of deeds, one must rely on Trump’s words, which in themselves do not inspire much confidence. But to over-analyse the views of a populist political maverick in a vacuum of ideas commits the same error Trump himself is accused of: making assumption before fact. Hence, it is unproductive to ascribe Trump’s behaviour to a coherent philosophy, underpinned (for instance) by Jacksonian traditions of disengagement, just as it is unhelpful to assume Trump is wedded to every opinion he tweets.
With this in mind, two specific rivalries in Asia stand out as having significant potential to be affected by Trump’s foreign and security policy agenda: Sino-Japanese relations, and Sino-Russian relations. One of them – China and Japan – is likely to produce negative effects for regional order if it is exacerbated. The other – between China and Russia – might paradoxically prove to enhance regional order should tensions between the two deepen.
The expectation that United States allies would be expected to do more, pay more, and expect less from a Trump administration resonated deeply in Japan. Coupled to Trump’s disengagement rhetoric and his muscular stance on China, the fear in Tokyo was that Japan would be compelled to undergo rapid normalisation, rather than the careful, slow and iterative process that had previously been the hallmark of Japanese security policy. The implications of such a policy departure are significant in terms of Japan’s relationship with Beijing, which had relied on a stable trading environment backed up by US security guarantees.
It was no surprise, then, that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made contact with Trump as President-elect a priority, and visited him less than a month after he had assumed the presidency. And, given the access to Trump denied to other regional leaders, Abe was able to act as a proxy for the preferences of others, reinforcing the message that US disengagement would have dramatic knock-on effects for regional order.
But in addition to skilful diplomacy in Washington, Abe has also looked to deepen Japan’s other relationships as a hedge against future US unpredictability. Australia has been a major target of Japan’s charm offensive. Japanese disappointment over Canberra’s choice of the French Shortfin Barracuda submarine over the Japanese Soryu-class vessel has been offset by the need to reach out to key partners in the US ‘hub and spokes’ regional security network. It is similarly unsurprising that Japan has been championing a more federated security structure involving US allies, but not necessarily relying upon Washington. This would prompt deeper Australia-Japan defence interoperability, as well as intelligence sharing with selected partners under a ‘5 Eyes-Plus’ arrangement.
Tokyo has looked beyond traditional partners in its search for reassurance against strategic surprises from the Trump administration. The oft-mooted quadrilateral security dialogue with the United States, Australia, Japan and India is back on the table, in spite of Chinese protestations about containment and encirclement. Abe has even courted Russia, championing a joint economic development zone in the disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories. There is even speculation that Japan might review its participation in sanctions against Moscow should that cooperation bear fruit.
The main concern, though, is that all these efforts are highly contingent on what Trump chooses to do with his Asia policy. Should he launch a trade war with China, Japan will be caught between a major trading partner and a main security guarantor. Likewise, an increased US military presence in the South China Sea raises the chances of miscalculation or accident, which could potentially draw Japan in. So too could a decision by Trump to act on his claim that, if regional partners are unable to ‘fix’ the DPRK issue, the United States will do it for them. And if the obverse results, via a regional United States military drawdown or retreat to an offshore balancing role, Japanese security with respect to China will be diminished and Beijing emboldened in equal measure.
The case for a Trump agenda deepening Sino-Russian rivalry is more complex. Beijing and Moscow have been deepening ties for over two decades, beginning with the Shanghai Treaty of 1996. And although the relationship has been characterised as only skin-deep, markedly enhanced cooperation has recently resulted.
This has been evident in joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean and South China Seas; sustained Chinese investment in the Russian energy sector and large deals involving Russian oil and gas; increased coordination in the UN Security Council; tentative steps at joint responses to the United States' THADD deployments in the ROK; and even early cyber security cooperation.
Yet Moscow remains acutely aware of the dangers of entrapment in its relationship with Beijing. Much of this is self-inflicted: Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its ongoing role aiding rebels in the Donbas region of Ukraine have required Chinese capital to develop its energy infrastructure. That investment is critical to underpin Russia’s own ambitious ‘pivot’ to Asia, based on establishing itself as a major regional energy supplier.
But Russian elites are anxious to avoid becoming a raw materials appendage to China, or a large territorial buffer zone that facilitates the Belt and Road Initiative transit corridor to the West, leaving Russia with few options to manoeuvre. As a result, pressure points in the relationship have been emerging. They include Russian desires to pursue oil and gas cooperation with China’s old adversary Vietnam, its enthusiastic desire for enhanced Russo-ASEAN trade cooperation, and its energetic promotion of Putin’s Eurasian Union as a partial economic counterweight to Chinese regional architecture.
One of the most consistent aspects of Trump’s agenda has been a fundamental realignment of the United States-Russian relationship. At least in part, this is strategically defensible. On the one hand, it serves US interests to prevent competitive Sino-US path dependencies drawing Russia in as a Chinese ally.
On the other, it complements Trump’s desire for a more assertive stance against Beijing by co-opting Moscow into acting as an irritant to Chinese security policy preferences in the region. This would ultimately assist Vladimir Putin’s desire to see Russia play a pivotal role in 21st century geopolitics, under his vision of a ‘Euro-Pacific’ great power.
The chief difficulty here is that Trump has overplayed the Russia card. His administration is plagued by scandals linking his advisers – if not himself – to possible collusion with a hostile foreign power over the outcome of the presidential election. In Russia too, there is a sense of buyer’s remorse. The Kremlin has realised that, even if he can avoid a constitutional crisis, Trump may not be sufficiently competent to pull off the adroit diplomacy necessary to switch US-Russia relations from mutual mistrust to friendship and cooperation.
The fate of regional rivalries is therefore fundamentally tied to the Trump administration’s plans for managing regional (not to mention global) order. Current indications are confusing. Few clear policy priorities have emerged, nor consistency in the way they might be implemented.
Hence, when assessing the likely trajectories of Trump’s regional agenda, it is arguably more useful to go back to first principles, and consider more closely the regional pressures driving cooperation and competition in Asia, as well as the broader structural forces on the United States as the international system transforms from unipolarity to some form of multipolar order. Doing so is prudent for two reasons. First, it avoids the problem of trying to study events that have not yet happened. Second, it is a useful corrective to more alarmist views about Trump’s intentions.