Over the past year, the Trump administration has dismantled multiple aspects of the Obama administration’s “rebalance” approach to Asia, including withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and seemingly reducing U.S. diplomatic resources in Southeast Asia, as part of a broader ongoing purge of the U.S. State Department – the administration still does not have an ambassador to Singapore, a key U.S. partner in the region for instance, and it also does not have an ambassador to South Korea.
The rebalance, originally called the “pivot,” was supposed to signal that the United States would play a large role in the Asia-Pacific region in the future – bolstering diplomatic ties, promoting a regional free trade agreement, and strengthening military and strategic links with many Asian nations, as a sign of continuing U.S. commitment to Asia. The rebalance also included an effort, by the Obama administration, to reach out to countries with whom the United States had had poor relations in the past, such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. It also included an implicit promise to send high-level U.S. officials to regional Asia-Pacific summits, providing the kind of face time for U.S. leaders at these summits that the George W. Bush administration had often ignored.
The Trump White House has not abandoned all of the core precepts of the rebalance, even as it has jettisoned some key aspects like keeping the United States in the TPP, and has publicly declared that the “pivot” or “rebalance to Asia” is dead. The Trump White House sent the president to Asia last November for a two-week trip, a clear demonstration of face time designed to signify the importance of Asia to this administration. The White House also has continued, when it can, the rebalance’s strategy of trying to boost ties with Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and other mainland Southeast Asian nations, although this strategy has been complicated by the violence and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
But the Trump White House is attempting to build its Asia strategy around an approach that is somewhat different from the rebalance – an approach it calls a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” This is actually a regional approach that was first enunciated by Japan. But the Trump White House, after hearing about the idea at length from Japanese officials, liked the approach and has made it central to how it envisions future U.S.-Asia relations.
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The idea of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” remains somewhat nebulous. Still, according to Trump administration officials, the concept has several components. First, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy rests, in part, on the U.S. and some U.S. partners essentially working to contain China’s abilities to dominate Asian waters, Asian trade, and Asian diplomacy. The president and many other Trump administration officials are using speeches to call for freedom of navigation in Pacific waters, and to assertively and publicly call out Beijing for violating free navigation in areas of the Pacific. The concept also emphasizes states’ sovereignty, essentially rejecting large multilateral coalitions. In this way, it is consistent with the president’s nationalism, as noted by James Curran of the Lowy Institute.
This Trump administration strategy also involves convincing three other major partners in Asia – India, Japan, and Australia – to bolster ties with the United States, potentially as a sign of a counterweight to China’s increasing assertiveness and military power. These four nations are referred to as the Trump administration as the “quad”, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; the idea that these “quad” of nations could upgrade strategic ties has existed since the George W. Bush administration, in a hazy form, but the Trump administration seems to view closer quad ties more specifically as a counterweight to Beijing. The Trump administration still has not made the idea of how the quad will develop very clear, and the countries involved in it are still unsure whether it will actually develop into more substantial security cooperation. Instead, the quad will likely remain just generally a consultative mechanism.
Most clearly, the Trump administration has been signaling that it wants to upgrade the U.S.-India relationship. U.S. officials are pushing India to be a major security counterweight to China in Asia as a democratic power, a country that supposedly is more wedded to international rules and norms, and a major naval power that could help the United States preserve freedom of navigation and free trade in Indo-Pacific waters. The Trump administration also is stepping up plans to work with Japan, India, and other countries to develop ways to finance and support infrastructure creation in Asia, as a counterbalance to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.
Second, the strategy is centered around the idea that the U.S. should work with Asian states to promote high-quality bilateral free trade deals, which would somehow replace (or supplement) the network of multilateral trade deals, including the TPP, moving forward in Asia. Indeed, on his trip to the region in November, Trump repeatedly touted his preference for bilateral trade deals. Few Asian states appear interested at all in the Trump administration’s proposal of launching bilateral trade negotiations.
The “Free and Open Indo Pacific” idea suggests that the United States work with partners like India, Australia, Japan, and ultimately others like South Korea and Singapore not just because they are strategic counterweights to China. It suggests that Washington wants to prioritize ties with other major democracies, and set out a future regional model in which Washington rewards countries that support free politics and values, norms and rules of trade and commerce, and freedom of travel on international waters.
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Indeed, some of the core components of this new idea will be difficult to pull off. India, the United States, and Japan appear sold on the idea of the “quad” as, at least, a consultative group dedicated to regional security. But Australia, the fourth key member of a “quad,” is proving harder to win over. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, Australia has no direct naval or land conflicts with China, and Australian leaders across the political spectrum remain wary of looking like they are entering a security arrangement that could appear to be an effort to contain Beijing. Meanwhile, although the “quad” could be a group that eventually expands to include other U.S. partners in the region, like Singapore or Vietnam, some of these Southeast Asian states are even more wary of joining a security grouping that could earn them disfavor from Beijing.
Bilateral trade deals also mostly look like a fantasy. Without the United States in the TPP, other Asia-Pacific nations have simply plowed ahead with the deal, leaving the Trump administration on the sideline; the deal will be finalized in March. Even Asian countries that used to be leading proponents of bilateral trade deals, like Japan, have increasingly preferred regional and multi-regional deals; Japan is negotiating a major deal with the European Union.
In addition, although the Free and Open Indo-Pacific idea is supposed to be based upon the United States prioritizing nations that abide by international rules and norms – and, mostly, states that are democracies – the Trump administration’s own diplomatic style undermines the Free and Open idea. While claiming that the White House will stand behind an idea where democratic values are supported, the White House has continued to boost ties with many of Asia’s authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, including the Thai generals who run the kingdom, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak, who has overseen a growing crackdown of the Malaysian opposition over the past two years.
In addition, the Trump administration’s actions at home, which are covered extensively in the Asian press – attacking U.S. media outlets, publicly blasting judges and law enforcement agencies, and other actions – make Asian leaders wonder how Trump can claim to be an advocate for free and open politics, for playing by the rules, anywhere in the world. Trump’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric toward North Korea, too, makes Asian leaders wonder whether, in a crisis, Trump would really work with any of the United States’ Asian partners, whether or not they subscribed to his “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Idea.” Instead, they worry, the White House might attack North Korea unilaterally, creating chaos in Northeast Asia.
In addition, Trump’s overall unpopularity in many Asian states – confidence in the U.S. president in democracies like South Korea has fallen badly under Trump – would make it hard for the White House to implement any new policy, no matter how well it was thought-out, or how closely it matched Asian nations’ own strategic and economic plans.