Donald Trump has a mission in Asia, but it's not the one his allies want

Donald Trump has a mission in Asia, but it's not the one his allies want

Donald Trump has a mission in Asia, but it's not the one his allies want

Updated 10 November 2017, 11:35 AEDT

The "America first" victory dashed the hopes of the country's Asian allies.

As Donald Trump jets around Asia this week, US allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific will be looking for signs that his administration has a vision for strengthening America's commitment to regional leadership.

They are likely to be disappointed. In line with his approach to Asia policy so far, Mr Trump's priority is North Korea — where any deal better than deterrence appears increasingly far-fetched — followed by his personal aim to boost American prosperity by extracting better terms from bilateral trade partners.

What he almost certainly won't do is articulate an integrated regional strategy — one that focuses America's economic, diplomatic, and military resources around a coherent set of strategic objectives in Asia.

Amid lingering doubts about US staying power and China's increasingly assertive push to become Asia's number one, this kind of strategy is exactly what America's regional partners need.

It is also what the region expected.

'America first' dashed Asia's hopes

Although Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" never realised its full potential, it provided much-needed direction to Washington's Asia strategy and a framework for prioritising military, diplomatic, developmental, and economic resources in the region. In the lead-up to the 2016 US election, America's Asian allies and partners were hoping for a stronger "phase two" of the rebalance under a widely-anticipated Hillary Clinton presidency.

Mr Trump's "America first" victory not only dashed these hopes by canning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, calling off the rebalance, and injecting transactional diplomacy into the heart of bilateral relations with partners. It has also re-energised structural questions about America's capacity to sustain its regional leadership role amid domestic political dysfunction, defence budget caps, and an increasingly competitive China.

A comprehensive Asia strategy would go a long way towards reassuring an anxious region that the US rebalance will be meaningfully replaced. But this will require a policy architect and whole-of-government consensus, both of which the Trump administration is lacking.

No champion for the region

Although there are a number of top strategists in Mr Trump's national security team, there is no Asia champion with the skills or authority to fill the role Kurt Campbell played in designing the "pivot to Asia" for the Obama administration.

As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs — the State Department's top Asia job — Mr Campbell drew on decades of experience from previous Asia policy roles in government, defence, business, and think-tanks, and had a mandate from then secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the strategy. By contrast, his position is now being filled by a career official who, despite being highly effective, doesn't have the White House's blessing.

Meanwhile in the Department of Defence the new assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, Randy Schriver, has only just been nominated and is still awaiting Senate confirmation. As a deeply experienced Republican Asia hand, Mr Schriver is a strong candidate for the job and an advocate of a whole-of government Asia strategy to strengthen collective security, balance Chinese power, and defend democracy and human rights in Asia.

But the Pentagon isn't the right place for devising an integrated strategy that harnesses US economic, aid, and diplomatic resources as well as the military.

Two camps in the White House

These personnel gaps have stymied the development of an Asia strategy so far. Indeed, Asia policy has been sculpted less by strategy than by the balance of preferences between two key camps within the administration.

On one hand, "globalists" like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and Matthew Pottinger, the National Security Council's senior director for Asia, have backed a muscular security presence and liberal internationalist agenda in the region.

On the other, "America firsters" like US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, National Trade Council director Peter Navarro, and former White House strategist Steve Bannon have only agreed on the military side. They have all but rejected a liberal trading agenda and have focussed on squeezing more lucrative terms of trade from allies and adversaries alike.

This has led the administration to chart a harder-edged Asia policy, one that stresses the importance of strategic allies, military deployments, and bilateral trade wins but which has neglected new contributions to Asia's economic order — governance, and developmental agenda, especially in South-East Asia.

Trump not as damaging as feared

To be fair, Mr Trump has not been as damaging for the region as was initially feared. He hasn't torn up the One China Policy or started a trade war with Beijing. He isn't threatening to pull out of key alliances or institutions. And he's showing up at multilateral meetings like APEC and the East Asia Summit which, even recently, many thought he would skip to the detriment of Washington's diplomatic footprint.

But there's a big difference between not rocking the boat and advancing a strategy that will solidify America's stake as a leading contributor to Asia's economic and security order.

This is the test Mr Trump will face on Friday when he outlines his "vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region" at the APEC meeting in Vietnam.

According to National Security Advisor HR McMaster, Mr Trump will emphasise America's ongoing commitment to freedom of navigation, the rule of law, sovereignty, freedom from coercion, private enterprise and open markets. His announcement may come alongside a new commitment to a "quadrilateral security dialogue" between the US, Australia, Japan, and India — which Japanese and Trump administration officials have been pursuing as a priority to build a strategic and democratic counterweight to China.

These are crucial issues which Washington's regional allies and partners expect it will champion. But for this vision to qualify as an Asia strategy, the administration will need to shed its "America first" ethos and inject new inject diplomatic, economic, and defence resources into delivering it to the region.

Ashley Townshend is acting director of foreign policy, defence and strategy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.