Sensible Advice for Trump's Asia Policy

Feb 7, 2017

"Hopefully, 'America First' really means peace through strength; it means putting our economy and our economic policy at the forefront of our strategy; it means staying strong but using our force in only the most judicious manner." Asia-Pacific security expert Patrick Cronin analyzes the situation in Asia and offers practical advice for the new administration.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart from Carnegie Council here in New York City. I am speaking with Patrick Cronin. He is an expert on Asia-Pacific security at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC.

Patrick, thanks for speaking with us today.

PATRICK CRONIN: Devin, it's a great pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Do we have a sense of how the Trump administration is approaching Asia at all? I mean are there clues that we can point to to assess an overarching approach?

PATRICK CRONIN: It's still too early to define a Trump administration Asia policy, in part because policy cannot be fully joined without more members of the administration being confirmed. We don't even have a full complement of cabinet members, forget about sub-cabinet. Until we get the people who would be going to the White House Situation Room on a regular basis and having interagency principals' meetings and deputies' meetings and other committee meetings to hammer out real policy, we basically have rule by the White House in terms of a series of executive orders, and they may not be the best barometer of actual policy, especially towards Asia.

That is because the policy that has been articulated in the first couple of weeks of the administration are essentially campaign promises made to middle America that brought Donald Trump into the White House, and they're not executive orders that have been vetted widely with any real policy department. So some of these early steps are not going to reflect what I believe is policy.

More reflective of policy, and maybe a better indicator of future policy, is the trip by Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Korea and Japan, the very first destination for the very respected secretary of defense, to go to our two key allies in Northeast Asia to reassure them and to signal deterrence to North Korea at a time when North Korean provocations could escalate into a conflict that nobody wants. So that's important.

I think there have been very positive telephone calls among Asian leaders and President Trump to include Korea, Japan, China, Australia, and others—and Philippines, for instance, even. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted before reports emerged about a tense phone call between President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull.] So there is some sign that a Trump administration is going to want to improve relations with as many countries in Asia as possible.

This doesn't mean that there will be no tensions with allies and partners, because clearly the "America First" rhetoric, the protectionist-sounding policy pronouncements that are being hinted at but not yet really formed into policy—the threat of tariffs on Mexico, even—all of these are scary signs from the perspective of most countries around the world, including especially in Asia, where economics and trade are such dominant issues.

There is also a concern about the question as to whether a Trump administration will relatively withdraw from the region and from the world. Will the post-World War II order start to be overhauled and changed and a big vacuum created, perhaps with China —or maybe not—trying to fill the void that's left behind? I think there is a lot of concern about that. I think this is somewhat overwrought analysis, though, here in the early days of a Trump administration.

I don't think that isolationism is at the center of President Trump's thinking. There is definitely a bigger strand of "America First"/isolationism, and some of the overtones of that slogan, "America First," of course, historically really rankle because, for anybody who knows the history, it has a very unfortunate historical sort of past. I don't think that is what Donald Trump is thinking about.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you suppose that "America First" will mean for U.S. policy in Asia?

PATRICK CRONIN: Well, I think it means, first of all, mostly a realist policy, more of the John McCain "Country First" kind of thinking, that America is going to continue to be a strong military power but we are going to have "peace through strength." "Peace through strength" is the phrase that I would much rather quote Donald Trump as saying than "America First."

But the president also means the phrase "America First" in terms of made in America, manufactured in America, American jobs. If he just changed that phrase to talk about "I'm going to focus on U.S. economic growth and development," he would have no daylight between his policy and the policy of every Asian leader who I know, that focuses first and foremost on an economic strategy for their countries. So I think there is a semantics problem here.

Unfortunately, the "America First" slogan also has overtones of racism and xenophobia and isolationism that go back to the 1930s, and some of that may, unfortunately, be reverberating through certain voices who supported Donald Trump to parts of America that are not fully conversant with world affairs today but they may be feeling a lot of local pain. Donald Trump is appealing to these disenfranchised voters. He said, "They won't be forgotten anymore," his main pledge in his inaugural address. That's a genuine outreach to a part of America that needs to be part of a whole United States of America, not a divided one. But Donald Trump has to learn how to appeal to them without dividing the other America and separating America from the world and Asia.

So, hopefully, "America First" really means peace through strength; it means putting our economy and our economic policy at the forefront of our strategy; it means staying strong but using our force in only the most judicious manner, that is being restrained on the use of force in order to not engage in protracted or very costly wars that are unnecessary, "wars of choice," if you will; but not to be pushed around either, to stand up for allies and partners. I think this is the kind of policy that can start to look much more coherent in the second half of 2017, but after people like Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson have full complements of officials underneath them joining in interagency policy and strategy discussions. I think that will be a much better policy.

There is a whole separate question of how does this administration respond to crises. That, of course, introduces a lot of uncertainty on top of the initial uncertainty about policy that we are talking about right now, which is we are having trouble figuring out what exactly is changing, what exactly is the continuity in U.S. policy. Nobody can say for sure two weeks into the administration because there just isn't a full administration in place.

DEVIN STEWART: Speaking of crises, what do you think are the top security risks for East Asia that the Trump administration will encounter?

PATRICK CRONIN: In terms of traditional security risks, I think North Korea is at the very top of the agenda—not because North Korea suddenly changes the logic of deterrence just because it acquires a nuclear weapon, even a nuclear weapon that can hit the United States, and North Korea may still be a couple of years away from demonstrating that. But as it pursues that objective there is the risk that those capabilities could embolden Kim Jong-un to miscalculate. And there's always a very real possibility that provocations at lower levels could escalate, even if unintentionally.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give me an example of the lower-level tensions?

PATRICK CRONIN: Lower-level tensions would include anything from shots fired across the Northern Limit Line that kill more South Koreans; whether it was like sinking the Cheonan corvette in 2010 or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that South Koreans occupy on their side of the Northern Limit Line; or it could be cyber-attacks on Seoul; or it could be a missile launched that is extremely provocative.

But obviously, a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, demonstrating therefore that North Korea could strike U.S. territory with potentially a nuclear ICBM, means that it would be provocative just by undertaking that action, which is forbidden by UN Security Council sanctions and resolutions that North Korea doesn't care about. Just flouting that whole system is a continuation of showing that proliferators win and people trying to stop proliferation are the losers. Those are provocations that would force public and official responses, and those responses could trigger an upward spiral of tension that could escalate.

We also are likely to see, I think, for instance, in the month of March, military exercises, the annual U.S.-Republic of Korea Foal Eagle exercise, and other exercises that North Korea has promised to respond to with military measures. North Korea is not looking for war. But again, these things could escalate and could change the environment considerably, including bringing China and the United States into tension.

What I really worry about on North Korea is, frankly, a miscalculation. North Korea looks at South Korean political turmoil; it looks at growing tensions right now between Japan and Korea, between China and the United States; its evaluation of the Trump administration's early days; and it could easily have a miscalculation, thinking that the outside powers are uniquely divided right now, uniquely unprepared to deal with contingency. That's why the Secretary Mattis trip to Korea, again, was to reinforce the idea that no, the alliance is very strong, it's ready for any contingency, even at a time of some political turmoil.

Beyond the North Korean problem, the flashpoints with China are ever present, especially in the maritime domain—between the United States and China; between Japan and China; between China and some of its neighbors, especially Vietnam, even the Philippines, even though that relationship is seemingly on a good track for 2017, as the Philippines is in the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

And China is looking to make some big moves in 2017 as it leads to its Party Congress at the end of the year. It announced some of the highlights of their economic-oriented policy at Davos in January. It will have a critical "One Belt, One Road" summit that it will host in May. In September China hosts the BRICS meeting with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, and will talk about the new economies dominating the global economic scene. So Xi Jinping seemingly wants to go into the 19th Party Congress demonstrating that Chinese rejuvenation is well on its way and in the second half of his tenure will be able to bring home all of the reforms he has announced. The Philippines will benefit from the infrastructure investments potentially and some of that largesse.

But I think, by the time you get to 2018 and beyond, some of the differences that continue to exist in terms of the claimant states of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and China will continue to percolate and possibly escalate into tensions as China militarizes the outposts in the Spratly Island and possibly elsewhere.

I think the tensions between China and the United States could come to a head in the spring of this year—really, between February, March, April, May, late-winter/early spring—over a surveillance or freedom-of-navigation operation in the Exclusive Economic Zone of China, but not necessarily in the territorial zone of China.

This happened in 2001 with the EP-3 incident off Hainan Island. It happened in 2009 with the Impeccable and other incidents of harassment of surveillance ships, surface ships. The combination of a possible aggressive freedom-of-navigation operation around Mischief Reef, which under international law is not allowed any kind of territorial claim because it's actually a submerged feature that has been built up—it's a low-tide elevation, in other words—could lead to some kind of a showdown—not one that would necessarily escalate on the scene, but could escalate in terms of China-U.S. tensions just generally—that is, horizontally escalate into economic sanctions and political sanctions, if you will; curtailment of military-to-military ties; and other ways that would really dampen the China-U.S. relationship, which would obviously have an impact on the global economy. So that's a very serious issue.

Are we going to have a trade war with China? Are we going to have a dustup in the South China Sea with China? Those are very serious issues.

I think there are a lot of other issues when you think about the political stability in Southeast Asian countries, in particular.

Myanmar is on a lot of people's minds, for good reason, because it is potentially such a success story, with Aung San Suu Kyi having found her way back into power, and yet in a very weakened position vis-à-vis the military; and in a Myanmar that continues to be riven with sectarian and ethnic disputes, especially the Rohingya problem, which could spread into an insurgency, and even a terror problem all the way reaching to Yangon, as we saw with the assassination of a key advisor; but also the continuing ethnic conflicts with those non-Burmese groups that have not signed on to some of the peace agreements negotiated in recent years.

I think you could say the same thing about the growing potential footprint of the Islamic State trying to get into Rakhine State in Myanmar—there have been signs of that—but also into Indonesia and into parts of Malaysia even, and the Philippines. This is a concern. The counterterrorism policy issue from a U.S. perspective will reverberate globally, including in Asia, because of these flashpoints where local conflicts and local insurgencies could give way to outside political/financial influence that could invite in at least the banner of the Islamic State or other radical Islamist groups.

I think the overall architecture of the region is not so much a flashpoint, but it's an important question about the engagement of the Trump administration to positively build a region around the rule of law, around economic growth and prosperity, to be able to address problems, and join in a more integrated Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region, especially after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which wasn't the answer to all problems, but it was the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," at least with respect to trade and economic issues.

The question is not whether TPP is coming back—it's not. The question is, what do you replace it with? There, I think, there is a very serious need in 2017 to build up a positive trade/economic/investment agenda that could include other elements—such as energy; it could include cyberspace cooperation—but things that affect the global economy in a very big way, that help integrate the United States with this still very dynamic region.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a great overview, Patrick. Thank you.

Now looking back at U.S.-China relations, which has been called the most important bilateral relationship in the world, some people have argued that a harder line by the Trump administration toward China is actually justified. It is a departure from Obama's approach. Where do you come down on this argument of how the United States should approach China, whether we should be harder and draw a red line, or have a more aggressive response to initiatives like the man-made islands in the South China Sea, or over Taiwan, or other issues?

PATRICK CRONIN: I look at China as, indeed, a very critical country for the United States' national security and for economic prosperity both. It is that duality that makes it such a big challenge for the United States, especially at a time when China has continued to rise and America has continued relative decline.

I think competition is here to stay and I think we have to embrace competition. But competition is very different from calling China an enemy, and it's also very different from calling China just an unalloyed friend. The reality is it's a complex relationship, and that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker that you can sell in Middle America. But the reality is we need China and the United States to continue to cooperate for the good of the global economy, for the good of the American economy.

I think there is plenty of scope for renegotiating agreements to ensure that American workers get a better deal, that American trade is fairer, that there is a manufacturing base in the United States that we can be proud of, rather than something that has been nothing but a shadow of its previous self. I think that is what Donald Trump is talking about. I think, if done right, that could be a very good kind of competition and a good kind of pushback on China. It will be give-and-take—it's not like it's just a one-way street—but, even if you push back on China, China will push back. But the point is to get to a more serious set of discussions about what are U.S. economic/trade/employment repercussions from the policies that are in place, and I think there's no doubt that we can do better.

On the security side, deterrence will continue to preserve peace at the macro level between two big nuclear powers like China and the United States. But it doesn't resolve the question about China's challenges to so-called "gray zone" situations in which it is incrementally asserting itself in areas that are more ambiguous about the rule of law, about jurisdictions. I think here we have to be careful, obviously, to act prudently—we're not trying to provoke a war—but we don't have to be completely risk-averse. I think the criticism, even by some people in the Obama administration, was that the Obama administration was too often running for conflict resolution without thinking through what China was trying to do. China wasn't necessarily looking for a conflict; China was just looking to probe and see how far it could push to have more influence over its near seas and over its periphery.

So there is plenty of scope for cooperation in competition. We need a strong military, though, to be taken seriously. That begins with, in my mind, a Navy of sufficient size and capability to demonstrate to the region that the continental United States, at least physically, may be far away, but the United States' presence and engagement will remain strong and robust. I think, as the Navy was declining in the numbers of ships, despite plans to grow the Navy—but always in the out-years, unfortunately, always in the longer-term future—it kind of reinforced the image of American decline, even while that was the strongest aspect of the rebalanced Asia. That is, the military dimension of the rebalance was the one dimension that seemed to have some real investment in it.

Other parts: the trade—I mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership got put off until the last year and then never made it; and the diplomacy was definitely more active, but it was also more perishable. You can show up at all the meetings, but if those ASEAN meetings don't actually produce any real agreement, like a binding code of conduct on the South China Sea, it really doesn't matter whether you showed up all the time, because you haven't really fundamentally shaped the future with that diplomacy. So we have a long way to go to staying engaged in shaping it.

One thing I would mention is that it's not all about China. It's about what the United States needs to do in terms of staying engaged with this dynamic region. It's about American allies and partners. We really need a new discussion, especially in the Trump era, on why alliances are in the American interest. Alliances have to be a two-way street, of course. They have to be based on fundamentally shared interests. But our alliances with South Korea, with Japan, with Australia in particular, are really strongly based on shared overlapping interests. We can't possibly shape this environment, we can't possibly compete successfully with China, without having allies and partners on our side.

That means new partners like India, and other countries like Vietnam; as well as our Southeast Asian alliances, which have flagged recently with the Philippines and especially Thailand. These are countries that if we can work successfully together with on major policy directions, both on security and on the economic front, we can really make a successful competition that convinces China that we are not going away, that they have to at least listen to the set of rules that we are talking about, and we will be respectful of China and we can work together and not escalate, because we are going to stay strong, and they are going to be strong too. We are going to be living with a strong China—we know that—and we're not threatening the red line of China.

It was Wang Jisi, frankly, who is the dean of American Studies at Peking University who said to me the other day: "Look, the red line that we have in China is the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. If you don't do anything to threaten the legitimacy of the CCP, there is nothing we can't resolve."

So, if that's true—and it may be a slight exaggeration, because it kind of masks the fact that there are issues that China considers core security issues, like Taiwan, that could end up threatening the legitimacy of the Communist Party from a Chinese perspective, not necessarily from a U.S. perspective—so different people could disagree on what it would mean to threaten that. But the point is that there really are not many fundamental conflicts of interest with China that would bring us into conflict. We have to be careful and mindful of them.

Taiwan is one of them. Taiwan I didn't mention earlier in the list of flashpoints, but obviously it is a huge flashpoint now. There will be more pressure from China on the Tsai Ing-wen Democratic Progressive Party government in Taipei. And the United States, having raised the question about whether the One-China Policy will continue, will be exploited by China as a sort of a symbol of American lack of continuity, commitment, fulfilling its promissory obligations, and it will use that in China with the Chinese public opinion, it will use it over Taiwan's head, it will use it with America's allies and partners in the region to show that America may not be a constant country but rather an erratic one. I think that's where we have to be very careful to make sure that we do mean what we say and that we do want to support the freedom of Taiwan—up to a point. It's "up to the point" that's kind of the key phrase.

Taiwan can't fight its way out of the cross-strait dilemma or history, but it can maintain both in certain impregnability of its defense—that is, an ability to have an asymmetric defense that would impose costs on any invader—if China wanted to invade its way out of its Taiwan problem, which it doesn't now, but it is certainly working on a strategy that it can implement by 2021 and wants the capabilities to do that, and I think we need to help Taiwan continue to build those capabilities to make that more costly rather than less costly for China.

At the same time, we need to make sure we are respectful of the cross-strait relations that have built up over the last several decades, since we have normalized relations with the PRC, and try to continue some strategic ambiguity here, to try to help Taiwan with their basic internal freedoms and way of life, in terms of their democratic system and their market economy, but at the same time not push China over the edge into thinking that we have crossed a red line with them. That is not even easy to articulate. It is certainly a tough policy challenge.

But nobody is looking for a conflict over Taiwan inside the Trump administration. They are looking for ways to, instead, have some signal that they are serious about our longstanding interests, about our commitment; serious about America's ability to compete with China even, and not to let China simply bulldoze the region just because it's the biggest economy and biggest military investor in recent times in the region.

DEVIN STEWART: You've given a lot of very sensible advice here, Patrick.

As a final question, do you have any advice on a major policy initiative for the Trump administration in Asia that would signal our presence and a way to maintain peace and security?

PATRICK CRONIN: Well, I think there is not one thing we need to do. We need to do several things. With our investments in naval and air power, as well as in cyberspace and outer space, we need to make sure we are building effective allies and partners and cooperating with them in effective ways, including encouraging allies to build their own network security—so encouraging Japan to work with Australia and with India and others, and so on.

But in terms of a big new initiative that we haven't really talked about, in the wake of the Trans-Pacific Partnership's withdrawal decision, what I would like to see from a businessman-turned-president in President Donald Trump would be a geoeconomic strategy that would really harness the full toolkit of economic/business/investment/energy/cyber/development ideas, public and private, working with allies and partners, to try to create a much more serious geoeconomic footprint and engagement in the region. That could be done in a million different ways. But setting some senior officials, still to be confirmed, into thinking about developing a geoeconomic complement to our strong security investment, into just keeping the American military strong, I think that would be the best thing that could be done. It would be a positive initiative.

It could be a very inclusive initiative of the region, even more inclusive than TPP. One of the downsides of TPP was that it took forever to try to negotiate with the other 11 eleven stakeholders—some of whom were not in Asia, by the way; they were in Latin America—and it excluded two of the largest future economies in Asia, namely India and Indonesia for instance. So there were some real shortcomings to TPP.

Here is an opportunity to stitch together both bilateral deals, but also other maybe new multilateral investments/trade/energy/cyber/ connectivity/development initiatives that would really signal to the region that America is serious about staying resilient, strong, and working with the region economically.

DEVIN STEWART: Patrick Cronin from the Center for a New American Security, thank you so much for speaking with us today about U.S.-Asia policy. I hope to speak with you again soon.

PATRICK CRONIN: Devin, I look forward to it. Thank you for the opportunity.

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