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Trump’s new rebalancing act in Asia: ‘Peace through strength’?

Trump’s new rebalancing act in Asia: ‘Peace through strength’?

WEDNESDAY, December 07, 2016
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If you are seeking clues to gain a clear picture of President Donald Trump’s policy towards Asia and Asean, don’t consult his official platform on foreign policy. I tried but couldn’t find any substantial evidence that offered clarity.

If we look for “policy direction” among opinions expressed by experts in his circle, it seems safe to assume that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” pillar doesn’t necessarily mean he will abandon his security and economic commitments in Asia and leave a void for China to fill.
There is little doubt that Trump will publicly ditch Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy in favour of a more “conservative” stance in this region.
Two of Trump’s advisers on Asian affairs, writing in Foreign Policy on the eve of the November 8 presidential election, announced that Trump’s main policy thrust in Asia would be “peace through strength” for Asia-Pacific.
Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro said Trump will approach the region with a clear-eyed appraisal of US national interests and a willingness to work with any country that shares its goals of stability, prosperity and security:
“Trump’s approach is two-pronged. First, Trump will never again sacrifice the US economy on the altar of foreign policy by entering into bad trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, allowing China into the World Trade Organisation, and passing the proposed TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. These deals only weaken our manufacturing base and ability to defend ourselves and our allies.
“Second, Trump will steadfastly pursue a strategy of peace through strength, an axiom of Ronald Reagan that was abandoned under the Obama administration. He knows, however, that this will be a difficult task. As former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne has warned: ‘Under the Obama administration, the Navy has shrunk to its smallest size since World War I. The Army is the smallest it has been since before World War II. The Air Force is the smallest in its history, and its aircraft are the oldest.’”
The advisers said Trump would expand the US Navy from its current 274 ships to about 350 ships, as endorsed by the bipartisan National Defence Panel.
If that’s the case, the Trump administration may even beef up America’s naval presence in Asia-Pacific – to put the brakes on China’s growing ambition in our region.
The article insisted that the US Navy is “perhaps the greatest source of regional stability in Asia” since it protects $5 trillion of annual trade across the South China Sea and acts as a check on China, albeit a faltering one.
“With the Chinese already outnumbering the US Navy in Pacific-based submarines and projected to have 415 warships and nearly 100 submarines by 2030, the mere initiation of the Trump naval programme will reassure our allies that the United States remains committed in the long term to its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia,” the two academics wrote.
What, then, will be the policy of the new Washington administration towards Japan and South Korea. How will Trump’s campaign pledges in regard to the two traditional US allies in Asia translate into real action?
Trump has said the two countries must contribute their fair share to the cost of sustaining a US presence in their countries.
The article offered a new tone for America’s approach towards the two allies: “Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, with a GDP of more than $4 trillion. South Korea is the world’s 11th-largest economy, with a GDP of more than $1.3 trillion. The US taxpayer not only rebuilt both countries after devastating wars, but American money and blood has allowed these allies the space to grow into mature democracies and advanced economies over the last half-century. It’s only fair – and long past time – for each country to step up to the full cost-sharing plate.”
The two advisers added that Trump will honour the US commitment to America’s Asian alliances as bedrocks of stability in the region.
“ Trump will simply, pragmatically, and respectfully discuss with Tokyo and Seoul additional ways for those governments to support a presence all involved agree is vital – the same discussions will occur in Europe to bolster the critical Nato alliance,” they explained.
Trump may even come up with his own version of the “rebalance” in Asia – if he agrees with his Asia experts that the case of Thailand deserves serious consideration.
Gray and Navarro said under the Obama administration, the litany of “mistreated” allies and partners has been “distressingly long” – and the cumulative effect has been a “clear diminution in the US regional clout relative to China”.
They added: “For example, Thailand, a key US treaty ally with a chaotic and unstable domestic political situation, was unceremoniously booted from Washington’s embrace following a military coup. It is now aligning itself more closely with Beijing, even in security matters.”
Perhaps, it’s here in Thailand that clear signs will emerge of how Trump will regain “American clout” in Asia vis-à-vis China – if he takes his academic advisers seriously, that is.