President Trump and his administration have devoted roughly as much time and attention to the Asia-Pacific as have previous administrations. Nevertheless, a perception is emerging of America’s benign neglect of the region. Concerns over U.S. reliability and the president’s judgment are hitting alarming levels. According to an international Pew poll in June, confidence in Trump to “do the right thing” in world affairs fell 55 points in Australia, 54 points in Japan, and 71 points in South Korea compared to the end of the Obama administration.
A variety of factors explain this troubling trend. The president’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and later the Paris climate accord, severely dented perceptions of U.S. reliability. The president’s attacks on U.S. allies triggered anxieties about the credibility of U.S. commitments. The administration’s focus on North Korea and failure to articulate a regional strategy have generated grumblings that Washington only has a North Korea policy for Asia, not a coherent vision for the region. The president’s transactional style—suggesting that Taiwan be used as leverage with mainland China, that Seoul pay for a U.S. missile-defense system, that Beijing would get a better deal on trade if it delivered on North Korea—also has fed a narrative that the United States will make any deal for the right price.
Meanwhile, China has placed itself at the center of every significant regional initiative, including negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s activism has magnified perceptions of a diminishing U.S. role in Asia.
While some may shrug off the significance of these shifts as growing pains in the transition to an “America First” foreign policy, the long-term costs to American interests could be major. For decades, the United States has adopted strategies to preserve access and prevent any competing power from dominating the region at America’s expense.
These efforts were informed by a judgment that letting Asia divide into spheres of influence could spark a great-power rivalry. Historically, in such circumstances, a rising power tests the resolve of an established power in order to find the boundaries of how far it can expand its influence. This leads to confrontation and, often, conflict. Mindful of these risks, the United States has sought to prevent drift toward great-power rivalry by ensuring that relations in Asia are guided rules and norms, not relative size and strength. This rules-based framework has ushered in a historic period of stability, giving space for Asia to experience an economic boom and become home to more than half the global economy.
Already, evidence of declining U.S. influence in the region is beginning to accumulate. Allies and partners are hedging between the United States and China, placing bets on both in order to guard against domination or abandonment. Leaders and citizens in Australia are engaged in a robust debate over where the country’s long-term interests lie in the region. The Philippines increasingly has been accommodating China while criticizing American military deployments. South Korea is seeking greater autonomy in its foreign relations. There also are indications that Asian states are growing increasingly sensitive to antagonizing China for fear of economic retaliation by Beijing.
As all of this occurs, Asia is only becoming more important to U.S. interests. The region is undergoing a demographic explosion that is powering Asia’s economic miracle. Many of the United States top trading partners—and most of the world’s middle class—are in Asia. Many of America’s most important security relationships are in Asia. And more than half of humanity resides in the region, making Asia key to addressing global challenges, from food security to climate change.
The growing importance of the region makes it all the more urgent that the United States regain the region’s confidence and preserve its traditional leadership role. To do so, the United States will need to articulate a vision for the future of the region and back its words with actions. The coming months present an important opportunity to advance a strategy and coalesce regional support for it, given the anticipated travel of senior officials and the president to Asia this fall.
In developing such a strategy, the administration will first need to reach consensus internally, and then articulate publicly, how it plans to address five fundamental questions.
What Top National Interests Guide U.S. Foreign Policy?
Previous administrations have identified top national interests as including the security of the United States, its citizens and its allies; protection of an open international economic system that promotes prosperity; respect for universal values; and preservation of a rules-based international order. To be sure, the Trump administration likely will have its own perspective on America’s top national interests. Clarity on the purposes of America’s foreign policy will reassure our partners that our policy is guided by principles, not ad hoc impulses. Conversely, an absence of clarity will strengthen the incentive for allies and partners to hedge by drawing closer to China, just as it also will increase the likelihood that China will probe the boundaries of how far it can push before encountering pushback from Washington.