Should China’s Neighbors Rely on the U.S. for Protection?

A ChinaFile Conversation

President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of neo-isolationism that could see many traditional U.S. allies in Asia left without Washington’s support in the newly roiled waters of the South- and East China Seas. What will the governments of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, especially, do if confronted by China but find themselves unable to turn to America for support? And what of other regional neighbors such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam? —The Editors


Trump’s unexpected victory, the biggest electoral upset in recent memory, has unsettled both allies and rivals across Asia. It’s telling that South Korea, a cornerstone of the American hubs-and-spokes alliance structure in the region, held an emergency national security meeting to assess the strategic ramifications of a Trump presidency. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was preparing for a meeting with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (the overwhelming favorite in the polls), scrambled to secure a meeting with the president-elect in order to clarify the direction of American policy in Asia, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Strongman Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines went the extra mile to be on good terms with Trump, who is known for his tough talk and often-incendiary rhetoric.

The fundamental concern with Trump, a global celebrity with zero experience in office, is that he’s a mystery when it comes to the world of politics. No one knows whether we are going to see more of the “art of the deal” pragmatic negotiator Trump, who bases decisions on situational considerations, or more of the rambunctious, unhinged strongman, who is willing to apply force to get what he wants. And then, there is worry over his temperament and his depth of knowledge when it comes to understanding the nuances of the regional geopolitical dynamics. In these trying times, with a looming global economic recession and constant threat posed by transnational terrorism, uncertainty is a negative value in itself. It is something that is compounded by the fact that most, if not all, Asian leaders expected former Secretary Hillary Clinton to be the next American leader, thus they now face the dreadful task of a strategic calculus overhaul.

The other concern with Trump is his neo-isolationist tendencies, particularly his penchant for tangible short-term gains and dismay with American commitment to weaker allies. Repeatedly, he has questioned America’s extension of its security umbrella to key Northeast Asian allies based on the assumption that they have not contributed enough in exchange, that they are more a burden than asset to America.

There is also a concern that Trump would be more interested in striking grand bargains with Russia and China than in standing by weaker allies in times of need. No wonder, then, from Tokyo to Manila, Seoul, and Canberra, regional allies are reconsidering. Some have argued that a Trump presidency will mean more aggressive American military balancing against Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South- and East China Seas. But does he have the temperament to avoid unnecessary and dangerous escalation?

Finally, Asian treaty allies and strategic partners are concerned about how Trump’s (likely) anti-trade and anti-immigration policies not only will undermine the U.S. position as the anchor of the global liberal order, but also set off even greater political polarization at home, which could permanently affect America’s wherewithal as the world’s sole superpower. Under Trump, America could become more introverted, more unilateralist, less reliable, and less influential.

This is precisely why it’s time for U.S. allies to hedge their bets by building up their own capabilities and diversifying their strategic partnerships to build a strong club of middle powers as a cushion against high uncertainty around the trajectory of the great powers’ policies and intentions. A more optimistic view would suggest that sometimes you may need someone precisely like Trump, an outsider with fresh ideas and skills, to shake up the region and break the geopolitical deadlock in flashpoints from the South China Sea to the Korean Peninsula.

For some time now, allies and partners of the United States in Asia have become increasingly interested in explicit and repeated assurances about American staying power in Asia.

The 2016 presidential campaign, and particularly Donald J. Trump’s provocative statements about a trade war with China and about abandoning our allies in Japan and South Korea, raised uncertainty about the U.S. to new—unimaginable—levels. But the new administration will soon have to move beyond this and develop its own Asia strategy.

We may not like it, but for some time the fundamental challenge to the United States in Asia has been understood as a trade-off between Chinese and American influence over the future of the region. Our instruments are both economic and military, and cannot be dissociated without grave consequences for the U.S. U.S. security guarantees are part of the architecture that allows the transition of power in Asia to be peaceful, and that is the kind of influence we should continue to do our utmost to exert.

At times, our allies have been of two minds on our China policy. A highly combative approach to China unsettles the region. But a disinterested Washington, or worse still, a U.S. that cozies up to an emergent China, signals just as much trouble. A Goldilocks formula of engage and challenge is hard, but it is what the U.S. needs. This is a hard Asia policy to carry out, even with the best American intentions. The Obama rebalance was a sophisticated approach to the Goldilocks strategy, but it too came under fire from allies who were worried that Washington was not on the same page with them at the same time. Japan needed a clear statement on the Senkakus, and ultimately got it. The Philippines wanted support for the rule of law, and got it. South Korea wanted understanding about President Park’s participation in President Xi Jinping’s World War II commemoration, and (sort of) got it. In short, allies shape U.S. diplomacy with China just as much as China’s own behavior, at times, elicits adjustments in the balancing act between engagement and challenge.

Trump has shaken this all up, to be true. But in the end, the incoming Trump Administration will need to figure out how it wants to recalibrate with Beijing. Every new administration gets a chance at this, a reset—a fresh start. But soon, every president will need to define U.S. interests and to pursue those with a rising China. Our leadership transition, like the one in Manila and the one perhaps about to come in Seoul, provides some risk and some opportunity with Beijing.

One point remains clear, however. President-elect Trump will not be able to make America great again if he simultaneously worsens relations with Beijing and destroys confidence in our allies. The new president will find out very quickly that our allies are less a liability and more the very strategic asset the U.S. needs. If he strains these relationships, he is far more likely to find that the U.S. will be drawn into conflicts it does not want. Let’s hope our next administration does not have to learn this the hard way.

Of course, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States caused anxieties among nations in the Indo-Pacific which have been threatened by an expansionist China seeking regional predominance, nations which therefore seek help from the U.S. government. These governments do not want the U.S. government, however, to run an anti-China containment policy. Their regional resistance to a hostile Chinese hegemony is far more nuanced than that. The big question is whether Donald Trump is capable of such nuance.

The relations of China to its Indo-Pacific neighbors is not a replay of the Cold War against a camp led by the USSR While the Cold War USSR-command economy was economically irrational and self-wounding, post-Mao China’s economy has been a version of the economically dynamic East Asian development state. No Indo-Pacific government seeks an American policy of challenging China that would lose their nations Chinese tourists, Chinese investments, and Chinese imports of their exports. With no evidence that a President-elect Trump understands the nuances of combining engagement with hedging, the threatened nations of the Indo-Pacific of course are anxious about a Trump presidency.

Actually, even before Trump won a majority of the electoral college votes and a minority of the popular vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, governments in Tokyo, Hanoi, and elsewhere in the region doubted whether military superpower America would come to their aid should the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.)-state’s continuing expansionism (combined with juicy economic carrots) threaten their political sovereignty, national dignity, and economic futures.

Skepticism about the reliability of American defense commitments and fear of abandonment already pervaded the nations of the region during the presidencies of Bush the younger and Obama. Ever since 1974, when the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) invaded Vietnam’s Paracel islets, and 1988, when the P.R.C. invaded Vietnam’s Spratley islets, and the mid-1990s, when the P.R.C. began seizing Philippine reefs, the American military had not stopped Chinese expansionism aimed at incorporating maritime Asia into the P.R.C. These Chinese territorial ambitions seem quite likely to continue to inform C.C.P.-state foreign policy choices.

Given this reality of continuing Chinese territorial expansionism and unfulfilled territorial ambitions, a number of threatened Indo-Pacific governments have naturally asked themselves whether the U.S. government would risk Los Angeles and fight China to keep largely unoccupied rocks and reefs and islets in the East Sea and the South Sea from incorporation and seizure by a P.R.C. government which has persuaded itself that China cannot again be the great power it supposedly once was, and somehow really is, unless the P.R.C. turns maritime Asia into a Chinese lake whose resources belong to China and whose navy dominates the region.

It is worth recalling that throughout the post-WWII Cold War in Europe in resistance to an expansionist USSR which had occupied East and Central Europe, West European peoples wondered and worried whether the U.S. would risk N.Y.C. to save the Fulda Gap or Bonn from the Soviet Union’s military. The similar anxieties of Europe and the Indo-Pacific about U.S. guarantees suggest that it is virtually impossible to fully reassure allies, friends, and partners that a distant foreign government would risk its own people and come to their rescue should they be attacked by a neighboring and ambitious Leninist party dictatorship. Uncertainties about Trump intensify long-existing anxieties about the reliability of American reassurances.

While no one can yet be certain of how Trump will act, his instincts seem to be to seek a grand bargain with the threatening dictatorship. He seems to believe that if he just assures C.C.P. ruling groups that America is not hostile to their monopoly of arbitrary power, that America will not even speak out on behalf of the victims of the Party dictatorship’s cruel and systemic violations of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which China is a signatory, then the Chinese government would not pursue its maximum territorial ambitions. Indeed, a Trump government would accede to some of those ambitions, abandoning friends in the Indo-Pacific. Trump’s preferences seem to be to seek a deal, but, I conclude, not one that would be good for the Indo-Pacific countries or America’s global interests or one that would hold, given the ambitions of C.C.P. ruling groups. Crises are virtually guaranteed.

My hunch is that a Trump deal would backfire. Supreme Leader Xi Jinping’s commitment to China dominating the Indo-Pacific and becoming the center of world power will not be slaked by a Trump grand bargain. Instead, China will be emboldened and its neighbors will feel abandoned. These Indo-Pacific countries will have to defend themselves against continuing C.C.P. expansionism. The Trump administration will feel betrayed. Trump’s administration will be compelled to respond to military crises in the Indo-Pacific region. While my educated guesses about the fate of Indo-Pacific nations seeking reassurances from the U.S. during a Trump administration may not turn out to be totally accurate, what is absolutely certain is that it is a given that nations of the Indo-Pacific whose sovereign territory and economic resources are threatened by an expansionist China are totally reasonable in worrying that they cannot rely on an America led by a President Trump. How could they not be anxious?

America has entered into uncharted territory with the election of Donald Trump. Many U.S. allies in Asia rightfully worry that Trump will put the isolationist rhetoric of his campaign into action, jettisoning long-term U.S. commitments to their security. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives from the internationalist wing of the Republican Party are becoming active again. For better or for worse, some of them might enter the Trump administration’s foreign policy team, pushing Trump, who is inexperienced in international affairs, to be more active in overseas military intervention. The final direction of Trump’s Asia policy will be shaped by the ongoing competitions among different factions in the Republican Party trying to influence him. It is too soon to tell what the Trump presidency will mean for Asia.

Having said that, Trump’s deviation from the conventional thinking in Washington’s foreign policy circle is unmistakable. What sets him apart from previous presidents on foreign policy is that he rarely cites such values as freedom, democracy, and world peace as the foundation of U.S. policy. On the campaign trail, he talked about “bad deals” and “good deals” when discussing U.S. treaties with others. He complained that American protection of its allies is “costing us a fortune.” He seems to view U.S. foreign relations from a purely monetary perspective, evaluating each relationship in terms of how much it costs the U.S. and how much the U.S. stands to gain.

Under this business mindset, I share Edward Friedman’s worry about the prospect that President Trump might be attracted to a bad idea that has been circulating in Washington for a while: the U.S. should strike a “grand bargain” with China, ceding something that China wants desperately (abandoning Taiwan, for instance, or by weakening the U.S.-Japan security alliance) in exchange for China’s compromises on something the U.S. wants most (say, Beijing’s opening of the financial sector to U.S. banks). While I am not aware of any precedent of this kind of grand bargain in international relations, using any U.S. compromise that is irreversible in exchange for some Chinese promise that might not be fulfilled in the future is dangerous to the U.S., and more so to U.S. allies in Asia.

For decades, the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, under which vulnerable small states could prosper and remain stable, has been grounded in the balance in the region between the influence of the great powers, China and the U.S. In recent years, under the rise of China, many of these states have managed to maximize their autonomy by maintaining warm ties to both the U.S. and China, letting their desires to dominate balance each other out. If the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific fades as a result of any U.S.-China grand bargain, the region will be left open for the advancement of China as a hegemon. China’s neighbors will have little bargaining power to resist their descent into a subordinate status.

To be sure, the inertia of the U.S. foreign policy establishment might prevent such retreat by the U.S. from happening. But in our capricious new world in which any conceivable or inconceivable thing can happen, U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific should prepare for the worst, developing their own capacity to defend their autonomy and protect their democracies. While any single state will find it very difficult to do it alone, these states, particularly those with shared democratic institutions and values, could strengthen alliances and even build multilateral security institutions among themselves. Such intra-regional alliance, once built, could be a more reliable foundation of regional stability than the now no-longer-guaranteed willingness of the U.S. to offer protection.