Alliances in the Asia-Pacific: US Commitments Will be Tested

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Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Presidential Inbox 2017 — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.

By Yuki Tatsumi

THE CHALLENGE: The incoming Trump administration will face an Asia-Pacific region amidst great uncertainty. With the growing influence of China in the region, as well as Beijing’s increasing assertiveness — and more explicit attempts to challenge the U.S.’s leading position — many in the region, particularly those in Southeast Asia, are questioning the depth of the U.S. commitment to the region and its will to enforce international rules and norms. Despite the incoming administration’s inclination to take tough stance toward China, given the multifaceted relations Washington has with Beijing, the U.S. cannot appear confrontational to China. The challenge of the incoming administration is to restore confidence among allies and partners in the U.S.’s continued commitment to be the steward of peace and stability in the region on the one hand, while on the other — clearly communicate to China that the U.S. will not acquiesce to Beijing’s attempts that could undermine the existing international order.

THE CONTEXT: The Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific initiative has been met with great enthusiasm by U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Anchored by two pillars — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the noticeable adjustment in U.S. military posture — the rebalance was expected to serve as a framework under which the U.S. recalibrates its global engagement strategy away from its almost singular focus on the Middle East and toward a greater focus toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Five years later, U.S. allies and partners remain puzzled over what tangible results the U.S. rebalance brought them, and they are apprehensive of U.S. staying power in the region. The fate of TPP, agreed after tough negotiation headed by the United States, essentially looks doomed with President-elect Trump vowing to withdraw from it. With all the assertive behavior by China to push its claims on territorial disputes in East China Sea in Northeast Asia, and South China Sea in Southeast Asia, the U.S. has by and large failed to devise a response — either unilaterally or in partnership — that alters Chinese behavior in a meaningful way. To make matters worse, U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific have been bombarded with reports of Trump’s assertion that all U.S. forward-deployed forces should come home if the allies do not “pay up.”

Some, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, have tried to cope with their concern by deepening their alliances with Washington in the hope that deeper defense relations will ensure continuous U.S. engagement in the region. But such moves by governments have not always been supported by their populace. Already, we have the president in the Philippines who frequently talks about “cutting ties” with the U.S. Among other key allies in the region, there are those that do not support such an approach out of concern that such a move will unnecessarily antagonize China and make the country less, not more, secure.

PRAGMATIC STEPS: The incoming Trump administration should immediately begin the effort to restore confidence among allies of the U.S.’s commitment in the Asia-Pacific region. The work starts by clearly articulating his administration’s commitment to the alliances in the region at the earliest possible time. Second, a high-profile visit to the region by a very senior U.S. official in the first months of the new administration will be useful in reaffirming the U.S. commitment. Finally, personality matters. While it will likely take more than 100 days to nominate all the senior positions in the government, nominating individuals to key positions who have a proven interest in prioritizing the Asia-Pacific region will go a long way in assuring American allies of the U.S.’s commitment to continue to play a leadership role in the region.

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Yuki Tatsumi is a Senior Associate in the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.

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