How Donald Trump Can Make the Pivot to Asia Great Again
Amid an endless stream of policy elite speculation over the greater meaning of a President-elect Trump, there are very real foreign policy challenges the next administration will need to tackle on day one — a long list of problems that the Obama administration failed to address time and time again.
I would argue there is no more pressing long-term challenge facing America internationally than the behavior of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has made it clear that the regional order in Asia is not to its liking, and that it aims to change it. China pushes against Japan in the East China Sea, asserts that Taiwan is no more than a renegade province that needs to ‘come home’, and engages in endless so-called salami-slicing — island building in the South China Sea.
Such change runs directly counter to the vital national interests of allies Washington has sworn to protect, and it undercuts the freedom of sea and air lanes that bring job-creating trade to and from America’s shores. Indeed, if China were to reduce the Asia-Pacific to nothing more than a sphere of Beijing's influence, it is a near certainty that other nations — think Russia and Iran, for starters — would copy China’s tactics — tactics like creating borders around seas, pushing critical U.S. allies around, and bullying adversaries to change the global system as Beijing sees fit.
A Pivot that Petered Out:
Team Obama, in a slick piece of attempted grand strategy genius, declared what they called a pivot to the broader Asia-Pacific. While certainly well intentioned, the strategy suffered at its onset from the sheer weight of what was being proposed — if you pivot to one part of the world, other parts, by the very nature of what you are trying to do, will receive less attention. After a massive outcry from U.S. partners, mostly in Europe, the pivot was respun into the so-called rebalance, with the Obama administration attempting to make Asia its number one foreign policy priority. The policy started out strong, but it was undermined by a series of global disruptions such as Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, Syria’s tragic civil war, and domestic political crisis. By failing to back words with action in other parts of the world — breaking a now famous redline pledge in Syria to strike Bashar Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own people — the administration sowed doubts throughout Asian capitals that the rebalance is anything more than talk, and a suspicion that it is backed by no real change in strategy or expended political capital.
A Trump administration has been handed a golden opportunity to make major positive changes in American foreign policy — something he declared in a speech to the Center for the National Interest, where I work. One such change should be to see to its logical conclusion a much more focused and calibrated pivot to Asia — no matter what the foreign policy crisis of the day is. I would argue for a four-part plan that has the following components:
1. Trump must Embrace an Asia First Foreign Policy:
Trump would be wise to make Asia is his number one foreign policy priority, and in fact to declare in the strongest possible language what I would call an Asia First agenda. The argument for such an approach is clear. Consider the two alternative top-tier foreign policy action items:
- Russia: While Russia might be flexing its muscles in Ukraine and in Syria, Moscow faces long-term and well documented demographic and economic challenges it will not easily overcome. And with big cuts coming to its military budget starting next year, we might be witnessing the peak of Russian military and diplomatic might.