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Unsettled, unstable and drifting: Today’s US-East Asia relationship

By Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University, and APARC scholars Michael H. Armacost, Takeo Hoshi, Karl Eikenberry, Thomas Fingar, Kathleen Stephens, Daniel Sneider and Donald K. Emmerson

In this series, FSI experts share their recommendations for President Trump.

The strategic situation in East Asia worries countries in the region and is starting to look unfavorable to American interests, according to our assessment. Most of these countries want the United States to reduce uncertainty about American intentions by taking early and effective steps to solidify U.S. engagement. In the recommendations summarized below, from our new report titled “President Trump’s Asia Inbox,” we suggest specific steps to achieve American economic and security interests.

Trade and economic relations

The dynamic economies of East Asian countries are increasingly interdependent. The United States is an important market, as well as a source of investment and technology, but this is no longer sufficient to ensure that future arrangements will protect American interests. The region is moving toward more formal, rule-based arrangements and the United States must be an active shaper of those institutions.

Most in the region want the United States to play a leading role in the establishment and enforcement of international economic transactions, and want the mechanisms governing trade to be multilateral ones. If we do not play such a role, China, and possibly others, will seek arrangements that disadvantage American businesses. So:

  • The replacement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should build on what was achieved in those negotiations, especially those that would ensure market access for U.S. firms, protect intellectual property rights, enforce labor standards, and ensure environmental protection. A single multilateral agreement would be best, but much could be achieved through interlocking and consistent bilateral agreements.
  • The administration should adopt policy measures to increase employability and create jobs for Americans who have been disadvantaged by globalization.

Defense and security

China’s military buildup and North Korea’s growing arsenal have fueled concerns about U.S. will and ability to honor its security commitments in the region. No one wants a regional arms race or tit-for-tat moves that increase the danger of escalation, but concrete steps are needed to check perceptions that the United States is unwilling to maintain the stability that undergirds regional prosperity. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Reconfigure U.S. presence in the region along the lines of an “active denial” strategy. “Active denial” means maintaining a forward presence in East Asia that is designed to deny an opponent the benefits of military aggression, especially the prospect of a quick victory. The first component of such a strategy is a resilient force posture, which can be achieved by exploiting the size and depth of the region to distribute units in more locations. The second component is an emphasis on planning to conduct military operations against an adversary’s offensive strike or maneuver forces, not targets deep inside an adversary’s homeland territory and not by carrying out preemptive strikes.
  • Strengthen U.S. military capabilities by fielding stealthier air and maritime platforms, increase submarine and anti-submarine assets, and provide forward deployed forces with better active defenses, such as rail guns and lasers. At the same time, if China’s neighbors feel threatened by its assertiveness, the U.S. can help them develop asymmetric coercive capabilities that can put at risk forward-deployed People’s Liberation Army forces. The United States can use elements of such assistance programs as points of negotiating leverage in our attempts to limit militarization on both sides.
  • Continue to promote U.S.-China military relations, emphasizing accident avoidance, crisis management, sustained dialogues on national strategies and doctrines, and cooperative endeavors such as training exercises and combined operations.
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People in the region worry about China’s intentions but they worry more about the prospect of confrontation between the United States and the People’s Republic. They look to the United States as a counterbalance to China but fear that Washington will react incorrectly to actions by Beijing, or take provocative actions that jeopardize their own interests. The U.S. should:

  • Respond to Chinese actions inimical to American interests in ways that protect our interests, achieve U.S. goals shared by others in the region, and avoid both the reality and the appearance of being “anti-China.”
  • Reaffirm American commitments to allies and partners including China and Taiwan.
  • Tighten enforcement of import restrictions on products produced by firms that have stolen intellectual property from U.S. companies.

Korean Peninsula

North Korea is threatening an ICBM test in 2017. There is a political vacuum in South Korea, and Seoul is being pressured by Beijing to reverse its decision to accept the deployment of a U.S. THAAD missile defense in South Korea. Under these circumstances, these are our priority recommendations for the administration:

  • It should work to dissuade North Korea from an ICBM test. Publicly, the new administration should reaffirm that the U.S. would use military means against an ICBM that appeared to threaten the U.S. or one of our allies. Regular Republic of Korea (ROK)-U.S. joint military exercises should be held, but calibrated to avoid giving Pyongyang extra pretext for a test. The Trump administration should appoint a senior envoy to Pyongyang to convey openness to renewed diplomacy, while at the same time being clear about the consequences of an ICBM test. China will share this goal, and the new Trump administration should establish a dialogue with China on North Korea based on this shared interest rather than other issues in the U.S.-China relationship, such as bilateral trade. The Trump administration should not negotiate the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD, an advanced missile defense battery) issue with Beijing, but rather stick to the principle that this is a Seoul-Washington issue.
  • The U.S.-ROK relationship will need early and special attention in 2017. Secretary of Defense Mattis’ early visit to the ROK was a wise move. With names already announced for Beijing and Tokyo, a new American ambassador for Seoul should be nominated soon. Despite the leadership vacuum in Seoul, the Trump administration should strive for the closest possible diplomatic, political, and military coordination on North Korea with our South Korean allies. Trade and burden-sharing issues should not be front-burner issues during South Korea’s political transition. U.S. neutrality in the South Korean election, along with demonstrated respect for South Korea’s democracy, will be carefully monitored and is essential, as is strengthening U.S. contacts and outreach across the political spectrum in South Korea.


The Abe administration is the most stable government Japan has had for many years. The prime minister wants to work with Washington, is prepared to deepen defense cooperation with the United States and others in the region, and is eager to lock in the commitments negotiated in the TPP. There is a real opportunity to secure access for U.S. firms greater than achieved by any previous administration. The Trump administration should:

  • Build upon arrangements negotiated in TPP to secure a U.S.-Japan free-trade agreement (FTA) that increases access for U.S. firms and locks in economic reforms initiated by the Abe government.
  • Propose annual head of state level summits with Japan and South Korea and seek greater trilateral cooperation, particularly in the area of security cooperation. Caution Tokyo against steps backward on historical reconciliation.
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Southeast Asia and the South China Sea

Southeast Asia is most vulnerable to China’s actions and intentions. Countries in the region want the United States to counterbalance China but worry equally that the United States is unequal to the challenge of protecting their interests while preserving American ones. Unless given a better option, they will lean toward China for economic and security reasons. Therefore:

  • The United States should anchor U.S. policy on the South China Sea (SCS) to an explicit commitment that no single country — not the U.S., not China, nor anyone else — should seek a monopoly of ownership over that body of water. To underscore that commitment, the United States should execute freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in waters around the Spratly islands. These and other operations in the SCS should be conducted in conformity with the authoritative ruling issued in 2016 by the arbitral court convened for that purpose under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • The United States should also try, in concert with its allies and partners, to bring the SCS under international protection by a combination of claimant and user states, including the United States and China, based on international law. The Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative should be upgraded to serve this purpose. If China declines to join, a chair at the table should remain empty in case Beijing changes its mind.
  • The U.S. should remain engaged with the process of regional and trans-Pacific institution building, including but not limited to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual meetings, the East Asian Summit, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which will be hosted by Vietnam in 2017.

Read the full report from SAPARC scholars here.



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FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.