America Still Needs an Asia Strategy

U.S. President Donald Trump is seen speaking on a screen during the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines

The absence of a U.S. strategy on Asia doesn’t just make Washington look clueless about North Korea. It also undermines America’s ever-tenuous leadership in the broader region.

Such a China-centric focus is misguided. U.S. relationships with Asian countries are of growing importance in their own right, irrespective of China. Asia boasts many of the world’s largest economies (China, but also Japan, India and South Korea), and it’s expected to account for 63.3 percent of global growth in 2017. India alone will account for 13.8 percent of such growth. Southeast Asian countries collectively are expected to see an average growth rate of 5.1 percent between 2017 and 2021. Asia, which boasts 60 percent of the world’s population, will continue to be an engine for global growth—and China is only one part of this remarkable growth story.

For now, in the absence of a U.S. Asia strategy, regional partners are looking within Asia to form informal alliances meant to counter China. The 11 remaining TPP signatories met on the sidelines of last month’s APEC Summit and issued a joint statement declaring their continued commitment to free and open trade. They’ve decided to cast their economic lot with themselves, and not with a China that they mistrust.

This dynamic is also playing out on the security front. The defense ministers of Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Malaysia and Singapore met on the sidelines of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security forum in Singapore, to discuss ways to improve military coordination, counter-terrorism, and maritime security. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kicked off the meeting by saying that “In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests. We have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity.”

All this said, Asia’s patience is not unlimited. Indeed, Washington’s window for crafting a credible strategy and convincing its Asian friends of its continued commitment to the region may be closing. In a response to questions at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue about U.S. engagement, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis referenced a Winston Churchill quote: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” However, one Asian official later told a reporter that “the clock for American self-correction may be ticking much faster.”

Indeed, one of us (Sandy) recently asked a Southeast Asian diplomat whether a time would come when the region will get tired of waiting for America to come around and move closer to China—even if grudgingly.

The diplomat’s response was striking: “It’s already happening.”

China’s growing influence across Asia is an inescapable reality. If America wants to remain a Pacific power, it needs to accelerate the process of “trying everything else” and “doing the right thing.”

The absence of a clear blueprint for America’s role in Asia leaves a void that China is happy to fill. Rodrigo Duterte, the brash and bombastic president of the Philippines, offers a cautionary tale. Last year in Beijing, Duterte announced Manila’s “separation” from the United States and his intention to ally with China.

Naturally, the statement was more posturing than expression of actual intent. Still, the outspoken leader was giving voice to the opportunities that Asian countries believe they have to move closer to Beijing—opportunities that revolve more around economic than defense partnerships. The Philippines, like many developing nations in Asia close to Washington, has a strong need for infrastructure assistance, and Beijing has the deep pockets to provide such support. The longer Washington takes to assert leadership in Asia, the more enticing such arrangements involving China may become for key U.S. partners.

It’s high time Trump’s top Asia staffers get down to the critical task of drawing up a new and credible strategy for an Asia region that Washington cannot afford to neglect or let down. The future of U.S. leadership hangs in the balance—and, as Pyongyang’s latest missile test makes alarmingly clear, American security interests could soon as well.