Since taking office, President Joe Biden has repeated an important phrase: “America is back.” What Biden aims to indicate is that while his predecessor, Donald Trump, disregarded multilateralism in favor of a transactional foreign policy, the United States will now once again lead the world on cooperative and liberal terms.
Yet while allies and partners are grateful for Biden’s normalcy, they will not pretend as if the Trump years did not happen. They also know that Trumpism could come back, potentially even with Trump himself in 2024, and will couch their foreign policies as such.
This dynamic is perhaps most evident in Asia, the obvious battleground for U.S.-China competition that Trump alienated by pulling out of trade deals with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pushing countries to choose between the United States and China (a choice of which they want no part), and berating American partners there. While Democrats are now wisely pushing to re-engage Asia, they are grossly overestimating both the America’s political leverage and the space that Asian leaders have to maneuver following years of U.S. incompetence. To re-engage Asia, Washington must cooperate with the region on its own established terms, rather than naïvely expecting its leaders to engage Washington as they did before.
“Progressives don’t hate trade deals - just trade deals that are written for corporations instead of workers and citizens,” the progressive Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) recently wrote, adding: “Let’s do a new Asia trade agreement, but one that is written to protect wages, not profits and shareholder returns.”
Well-intentioned as they may be, Murphy’s comments evince a concerning amount of U.S-centrism that will not serve Washington well. Asia, put simply, is not waiting for some American-led trade deal; they have their own, and they’re doing increasingly fine without America.
Indeed, while the United States was in the Trumpian wilderness, numerous Asian countries joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), whose signatories account for some 30 percent of the world’s population. Many Asian countries also joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the TPP’s successor, whose signatories represent about 13 percent of global gross domestic product.
What American leaders seem not to understand is just how much damage the bipartisan backpedaling from the TPP did to the U.S. reputation in Asia. Policymakers seem to forget that it was not just Trump who lambasted the TPP, but that both serious 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did the same. Even though Clinton, as Secretary, helped lead TPP negotiations and once called it the “gold standard,” she eventually opposed the deal.
Across the Pacific, leaders from Singapore to Hanoi looked on in horror. After they spent substantial political capital pushing TPP, the United States jettisoned the deal on a distressingly bipartisan basis. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took on powerful agricultural interests to push through the TPP; he was distraught after Trump pulled out from it, saying: “The TPP would be meaningless without the United States.” Yet by early 2017, his Japan had smartly reversed course. And by November, following meetings in Vietnam, leaders were close to agreeing to what would become the CPTPP.
It should be painfully evident that the United States is no longer the locomotive at the head of global trade, and that this is far from Trump’s fault alone. If it is hard to imagine a world in which Clinton wins the 2016 election and the United States promptly joins the TPP; it is, then, hard to imagine a world in which Asian leaders were not after 2016 setting the rules of their own road.
There is no going back to the U.S.-led past. The reality, instead, is that the leaders of Asian countries—and perhaps of countries the world over—are no longer waiting for the United States to establish norms and institutions. Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, and others are willing to do it on their own.
Yet Asian countries are not opposed to American involvement. Japanese leaders have suggested that the United States should now consider joining CPTPP. Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has said the same.
But successfully engaging Asia requires that policymakers approach U.S. partners with humility, rather than hubris. Demanding that they “do a new Asia trade agreement” is not the way to win over a massive region that is not only frustrated with America, but increasingly willing to accept Chinese capital, even though it comes with attached illiberal strings.
Asia’s leaders did not stand around waiting for the United States to return from the Trump years; instead, they shaped their region’s future. It is therefore up to U.S. policymakers, not Asia’s leaders, to adapt to the Asia they built.
Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. Twitter: @CharlesDunst