Characterizing himself as “America’s first Pacific president,” Barack Obama tried to shift America’s focus, strategic commitments and resources to Southeast Asia. Hillary Clinton was all for it, too, authoring a 2011 vision for an Asia-focused foreign policy titled “America’s Pacific Century.”
President Trump – consciously or not – is now suddenly fast-tracking the Obama-Clinton policy goal with his new, crisis version of the “Asia Pivot”.
North Korean nuclear blasts and ICBM testing met by intransigent American rhetoric and military might have suddenly and intensively led to a rapid, if perhaps accidental, Asia Pivot 2.0. This new pivot is made up of more guns and less butter. If the Clinton-Obama policy led with trade, the Trump Pivot leads with tirade.
This quickly evolving Trump pivot is now in full swing, being implemented more by circumstance and reaction than design. A hydrogen bomb can focus the mind and crystallize a new policy. All the world’s eyes are watching to see how it plays out as miscalculation, mistake or failure could be catastrophic.
Trump’s Asia pivot relies less on reassuring allies than on military buildup and sales. America is increasing new regional military deployments. Hard power is combined with harsh words dominated by Trump’s trademark abrasive speech and more confrontational approach towards a rapidly rising China. Asian nations feel the heat and insecurity from the region’s increased tensions, shifting power, and threatened trade. In response, they seek greater security and more American weaponry. All this adds up to a rebalance of power.
President Trump has aggressively shined the spotlight on China’s culpability for the North Korean regime’s survival. Beijing is being called out for long supporting Pyongyang, allowing or perhaps even encouraging it to be an international irritant. Now China must reckon with the sovereign Frankenstein it helped create, having over the years enabled the rogue nation and Kim-clan to now credibly threaten the global peace.
North Korea, however, is not the only regionally destabilizing project pursued by the Chinese. Beijing has used its size and economic strength to remind its neighbors who rules the regional roost. It constructs new militarized islands and challenges those who freely ply international waters it claims. The pivot is meant to counter these moves.
Started by President George W. Bush in 2008, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord Obama later sought to sign was the centerpiece of the Asia pivot, seeing increased regional trade and tightening commercial bonds as a less threatening approach to countering China’s growing power. TPP was central to the Bush-Obama pivot. Trump dumped that powerful tool, preferring increased arms sales to added trade deficits.
Trump’s TPP retreat was seen widely as an unforced error, signaling a lack of American interest in Asian economic security and an invitation for Chinese regional economic domination. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidating leadership and a post-TPP regional opening for China made the neighborhood nervous. Asian countries grew anxious that an economically powerful, militarily growing and unchecked China would set new rules and force conditions favorable to Beijing. Xi’s economic infrastructure plan, the “one belt, one road” initiative, was beginning to look to some more like a one noose policy.
That anxiety spread quickly to Japan, which is in the middle of shifting from a previously pacifist posture to one of a more militarized and mobilized nation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made an early trip to Trump Tower, is now coordinating in a more robust way with America and its forces to make sure that missiles flying overhead are not hanging over Tokyo's head like the sword of Damocles.
Seoul is currently on ice as Trump asserts he will not be blackmailed over South Korea. In his uniquely tortured and torturing communications, he dressed down new South Korean leaders, calling them appeasers. Trump lets the trade imbalance with the U.S. imply American ennui about Seoul’s fate. From a Trump economic nationalist perspective, South Korea is an export-oriented trade parasite. His seeming indifference to South Korea is a cold and callous negotiating calculus applied to tell Kim Jong-un he is calling his bluff. It is an incendiary game of chicken with potentially dire consequences. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it, a North Korean attack would reap a “massive military response”.
Trump came into office with an unfamiliar and unpredictable rhetoric that is now translating into a set of unintended foreign policies and strategic directions. Global dynamics have rapidly evolved his initial and instinctual populist approach into a course of confrontational actions, regional rebalancing, and geopolitical recalculation.
The latest development of this reactive approach is an increased American presence and forward posture that Bush, Obama and Hillary Clinton desired, but failed to implement fully. Trump’s comes much faster, furiously and with greater risks than the incremental strategic approach previous administrations sought. A rawer, unapologetic, and aggressive Bush-Obama-Clinton Asia pivot is now fully underway. As in basketball, however, a quick, hard pivot always runs the risk of an epic fall.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @KounalakisM.