Donald Trump Needs a Strategy for the Asia-Pacific Region

An SH-60B Seahawk helicopter on the flight deck of USS Cowpens. Flickr/U.S. Seventh Fleet

The Trump administration needs to conduct a Southeast Asia policy review that explores a strategy in the South China Sea.

Seventy-five years ago, Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his escape from the Philippine island base of Corregidor, avoiding the tightening Japanese noose and ensuring he would live to fight another day. He arrived in Australia on March 17, 1942, and three days later made his famous declaration: “I came through and I shall return.” Of course, return he did. And although the United States quickly granted the Philippines independence after the war, U.S. forces remained forward stationed there for decades, with the two countries forming an enduring alliance.

Today, with North Korea finding new ways to outdo itself and with Washington, DC possibly seeking to upgrade ties to Taiwan, Southeast Asia may seem like a strategic sideshow. Indeed, despite the administration’s somewhat surprising focus on Asia since the inauguration, the Trump White House has paid it precious little attention. That is a mistake. For a time during World War II, Japan’s conquest of the subregion tipped the Asian balance of power in favor of the Axis. In the war’s aftermath, American planners recognized that Southeast Asia would play a similar role in determining the power balance between the United States and its Pacific allies on the one hand and its Eurasian foes on the other. This remains true. As such, the Trump administration should prioritize developing a strategy for Southeast Asia if its hopes to ensure a favorable balance of power across the Asia-Pacific.

MacArthur’s flight from the Philippines is just the latest in a series of dark anniversaries in Asia, all of which serve as potent reminders of Southeast Asia’s geostrategic centrality. February 15 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the fall of Singapore to Japan, which Winston Churchill later described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British military history.” Just four days later, on February 19, 1942, Japanese aircraft would launch a raid on Darwin, Australia, with bombers flying off of aircraft carriers and from airfields on Ambon and Celebes as well as from islands in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), which Japanese forces had conquered since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

With the exception of Vietnam, which Vichy France continued to nominally administer but which hosted Japanese troops, Southeast Asia was, until December 7, 1941, a preserve of Western power in the East. Barely two months later, it would be a playground for the Japanese military.

The fall of Singapore mattered for a number of reasons. Although the capture of Java and Sumatra were yet to come, British capitulation in Malaya signaled the (ultimately temporary) success of Japan’s “Southern Strategy.” Tokyo now had access to the region’s abundant natural resources, with which it could feed the Japanese war machine. Meanwhile, the British war effort in Europe was deprived of those very same resources.

Moreover, in capturing Singapore and, one month later, Java and Sumatra, Japan took hold of the main gateways to the Indian Ocean. The Imperial Japanese Navy was soon raiding shipping in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. Japanese carriers resupplying at Staring Bay in Celebes (modern-day Sulawesi) launched the raid on Darwin in February and another on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, in March. In April, the IJN attacked Colombo and Trincomalee Harbor on Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), sinking the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, among other British and Australian vessels. Tokyo may have failed to meaningfully diminish British sea power in the Indian Ocean, but it did deny the Royal Navy outright sea control of those waters.

Third, although the British, French and Dutch would return to the region following the war’s conclusion, the fall of Singapore marked the biggest, though not the last, nail in the coffin of colonialism in Asia. As Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs:

My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through World War II and the Japanese Occupation and emerged determined that no one—neither the Japanese nor the British—had the right to push and kick us around. We are determined that we can govern ourselves and bring up our children in a country where we can be proud to be self-respecting people.

When the war came to an end in 1945, there was never a chance of the old type of British colonial systems ever being recreated. The scales had fallen from our eyes and we saw for ourselves that the local people could run the country.

The Japanese sweep through Southeast Asia gave new life to independence movements that returning colonial masters would not be able to suppress. The geopolitical consequences of this epochal shift remain evident to this day.

From its dominant position in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Japan sought to keep the Western powers out of East Asian seas and to neutralize Australia as a base of allied operations and as a power in its own right. The Darwin bombing remains to this day the largest foreign attack on Australian soil, and was the first of approximately one hundred Japanese air raids on northern Australia in 1942 and 1943.

Australia’s unique status as a continent nation has afforded it great security. But while surrounding oceans provide Australia with strategic depth, they also can act as freeways for aggressors should sea control fall to an unfriendly power. Darwin is approximately 3,400 miles from Tokyo. Once Japan launched its campaign of conquest, however, it essentially erased that distance.