The Trump administration’s new budget proposal seeks a $54 billion boost to defense spending, much of which would go to the United States’ military presence in Asia.
The president’s Asia advisors, composed primarily of China hawks, have reinforced a do-or-die mentality regarding the rising superpower. Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, stated in a radio show last year he believes the United States and China will go to war in the next decade. Trump’s Asia advisors, Peter Navarro and Alexander Gray, advocated in a recent piece a policy of “peace through strength,” calling to expand the U.S. Navy to 350 ships. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested implementing a blockade to prevent Chinese access to its man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Realist international relations scholars like John Mearsheimer and Robert Kagan affirm the United States and China are drifting closer to a destructive confrontation. This is because the ability and willingness of China to reshape the international order are increasing, just as the United States’ capacity to preserve the status quo is declining.
Of course, in our current era of globalization, economic interdependence will hinder any conflict between China and the United States from going “hot.” It is the interest of both countries to avoid war, which would entail catastrophic costs to both sides and could easily be the largest war in world history. Top decisionmakers on both sides know this. The Chinese foreign minister, for instance, recently stated that “there cannot be conflict between China and the United States because both will lose, and both sides cannot afford that.”
But even if there is no hard conflict, China and the United States appear to be headed towards a Cold War-type détente in which other countries are forced to take sides. As Malaysia and the Philippines line up to strike deals with Beijing, there has already been a fair amount of hand-wringing in Washington, DC that the United States is “losing” its allies in Southeast Asia. These concerns have grown since Trump scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby “opening up a door” for China to expand its influence in Southeast Asia. And lest one forget, proxy conflicts in Cold Wars are not necessarily minor—recall the Vietnam War.
What, then, is the solution? How do China and the United States avoid escalating toward war?
A Strategy for Success
For better or for worse, the challenge of extricating the United States from this twenty-first-century security dilemma falls to President Trump. He must make a change in course now, and he has the power to do so.
If Trump is to implement a successful strategy, it must align with his “America first” worldview, which brought him to power and underlies his policies. This means that policy in Asia must be committed to defending America’s national interests, which Trump and his supporters feel are threatened.
Another fundamental requirement that Trump must blend into his strategy is an acceptance of today’s balance of power: he and his advisers must realize that China is becoming the most influential power in Asia. This may be a difficult pill to swallow, but it is impossible to form an effective strategy without coming to an acceptance of this basic fact.
As the Chinese economy continues to grow—despite the recent slowdown—the country will continue to gain influence. Militarily, China’s economic prowess has translated into expanding capabilities. It now has one operational aircraft carrier and will soon have another. China is tilting the balance of power in the Pacific and may already be able to counter the American military on its periphery. Like the United States in the Western Hemisphere, China is a resident power in Asia, and it will always have more vital interests there than the United States.
Keeping these issues in mind—incorporating America First policy and recognizing China’s ascent—Trump should make two major adjustments to Asian foreign policy that break from the past decade: emphasize economic over military engagement, and concentrate on core alliances rather than expand security partnerships.
At first glance, making engagement less military in Asia seems like it would harm the ability of the United States to project a military presence in the region. This would certainly be a criticism from the hawks in Trump’s foreign-policy circle. Deepening economic ties; however, would strengthen Washington’s ability to project military power. Washington’s longtime alliances with Tokyo and Seoul best exemplify this reality. In the twentieth century, the United States underwrote Japan and South Korea’s security. As Japan and South Korea prospered under the U.S. security umbrella, they deepened trading ties with Washington. The two countries are now the fourth and sixth largest trading partners of the United States. Together, they host roughly eighty thousand American troops. Thus, economic and military ties reinforced each other, and they have advantaged the United States’ ability to project power in Asia.