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Mira Rapp-Hooper on "Subcontracting" U.S. Policy Toward Asia

June 23, 2017

South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-goo & Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Seoul, February 2017. CREDIT: DOD/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Mira Rapp-Hooper. Mira is a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, DC.

Mira, thanks for joining us today.

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: My pleasure, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: I read your piece, "Deciphering Trump's Asia Policy," that you wrote a few months back. Great piece. In that piece, you warned of "American retrenchment and a movement toward unilateralism in Asia," and the risk is that this sort of approach could really hurt the type of American leadership that has been in place since 1945 and lead to the possibility of a destabilizing shift in Asia.

I'd like know, is that how you see things playing out right now, or do you want to make an amendment to your analysis?

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: I think I would caveat that. Basically the piece that you're referencing is a piece that I wrote just a few days after the election. In the piece I laid out a very broad spectrum of possibilities of how we might ultimately come to see Trump's Asia policy come together.

I suggested in that piece that the range of possibilities was anything from on the far end, U.S. unilateral military activity in Asia, or on the other hand essentially a G2 type of great power condominium by which the United States cuts deals with China, leaving out other powers in the region. In the latter case, this sort of G2 type of arrangement, the United States might be inclined toward some amount of retrenchment. I definitely don't think we have seen either one of these polar opposites come to pass quite yet, but we have seen some of the instincts that I gesture at in both of those poles start to play out.

What do I mean by that? I think that in the first few months of the Trump administration we have seen a U.S. policy toward Asia which is strongly based on the military. The prior administration, the Obama administration, of course, crafted a pivot or rebound to the Pacific, which had military, diplomatic, and economic components. But this president has really been pursuing almost exclusively the military component.

Of course, in his first couple of days in office he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) very unceremoniously and has not offered up any kind of new economic initiative for Asia. He has done some amount of diplomatic legwork in the region, mostly with respect to North Korea, however. In particular, he has not really done much to demonstrate a sustained U.S. interest in Southeast Asia from a diplomatic perspective, but there has been quite a lot in the military realm.

Of course, the president has articulated his interest in building up to a 350-ship navy; we have seen a larger defense budget; and one of the key emissaries of the administration's messages in East Asia has, of course, been Secretary Mattis, who at this point has traveled to the region twice with messages of reassurance. So one key way I would typify the administration's policy thus far is that we've got a "military-first" approach to Asia.

The other thing I would say is that until just the last few days it has been almost entirely focused on North Korea. A lot of U.S. traditional national security interests in the region appear to have fallen away for this administration. There has been much less focus on the South China Sea, almost no focus whatsoever on Taiwan, but a huge focus on trying to take some type of action on North Korea before it achieves an intercontinental ballistic missile capability and a miniaturized nuclear weapon, and related to that, a strong desire to get China on board with cracking down on North Korea.

So it seems from all of this that in the interest of trying to take a hard line in North Korea, the Trump administration has really actually been focused on delivering a very good relationship with China, trying to ply it to be more cooperative on North Korea, and as a result has pushed its interests less on issues like the South China Sea or Taiwan. That may all be changing, however. Just a couple of days ago we saw the president decree via tweet that China had not been doing enough on North Korea and that it was running out of time to do so.

So thus far, to sum it all up, I would say that the Trump administration's foreign policy toward Asia is military first and North Korea first, and the rest of his policy is very much yet to be doled out.

DEVIN STEWART: Everything else is a distant second.

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: Indeed.

DEVIN STEWART: This is a very clear description of where we are today. Those two components—the military first and the hard line toward North Korea—what do you see as the possible risks to those two approaches?

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: The risks are considerable. When it comes to the military-first component, my central concern is that in emphasizing high-end defense issues and not really discussing the economic or diplomatic realms, the United States is actually ceding an extraordinary amount of space to China. China is, of course, the United States' peer competitor in Asia; it is not just a rising China, but in Asia China is a risen state. And China has plenty of diplomatic power and economic leverage of its own.

Just in the first few months of the Trump administration we have seen China formally unveil its Belt and Road Initiative, which is an economic and development assistance initiative across South and Central Asia, and this is a very compelling way that China is going to be able to get regional states to form closer ties with it, to depend on it more for development assistance, and ultimately to try to curry stronger relationships all across the region.

With the United States having signed its way out of TPP and not offering up an alternative, I think we are already seeing some amount of tilt from regional states in Southeast Asia in particular who don't feel that they can depend on the United States and are interested in securing some of the economic benefits that come from working with China. So that's a clear cost when it comes to, I think, the sort of asymmetric emphasis on military tools.

When it comes to the asymmetric policy emphasis, my concerns of emphasizing North Korea first, second, and third are many. That is mainly the fact that, one, the North Korea problem is an incredibly difficult one. North Korea's nuclearization and its development of long-range ballistic missiles would have been a problem from hell for any U.S. president, even the most capable foreign policy teams. But the Trump administration has not demonstrated thus far that it understands exactly the problem that it has on its hands.

It has put a huge amount of faith in China being willing to change its own policies toward the Korean Peninsula, but there is a fundamental problem in depending on China to fix North Korea, which is that the Chinese have a fundamentally different preference ordering for outcomes on the Korean Peninsula than the United States does. The United States prefers and is most focused on de-nuclearizing North Korea, whereas China prefers to keep the Korean Peninsula, which, of course, is just on its Northern border, stable, and only secondarily cares to de-nuclearize the peninsula. So, by subcontracting North Korea policy to China, I think the United States is evincing some amount of naïveté on how far Beijing is likely to actually be willing to go.

Furthermore, in de-emphasizing many of its traditional foreign policy interests in the region, like the South China Sea or Taiwan, the United States is signalling to China that it is able to co-opt U.S. policy and even potentially have a veto on certain U.S. policies.

I'll point to a Reuters interview back in April in which the president actually suggested that before ever getting on the phone with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen again he would directly consult Xi Jinping. U.S. foreign policy in Asia is not to be run by any other power, certainly not China. So I am concerned that by this asymmetric policy emphasis on North Korea we are both mortgaging a lot of other U.S. interests in the region, and doing so in the interest of co-opting China, which is again, highly unlikely to succeed.

DEVIN STEWART: In subcontracting our foreign policy to China, I would anticipate a loss of American influence in Asia. Are there other possible scenarios that would be an outcome of that approach?

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: Yes. Certainly over time if this were to persist, it could result in a loss of American influence. I would note, as I already suggested, that headed into the strategic dialogue that the United States just had with China a few days ago, the president and his national security team do appear to be wearing thin on their patience with respect to China and its intervention on North Korea, but we haven't necessarily seen what comes next in terms of their North Korea policy. I think they are feeling like China has not demonstrated in the last few months since they met Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April that it is really willing to get on board in a meaningful way. But, of course, we don't know what will be the next phase of this administration's North Korea strategy because they haven't really articulated one yet.

But the other danger, to return to your question, that could come from subcontracting policy toward China is instability and miscalculation. In addition to other states in the region getting the idea that China is kind of running the show, if the United States signals to China that it is willing to take its foot off the gas, let's say, in the South China Sea, but then changes its mind—as it may be doing right now—that is, realizes that China is not willing to play ball and is not going to deliver, and then the administration decides to return to traditional U.S. national interests in the South China Sea, there could be some kind of risk of a crisis or a conflict that comes from the fact that the administration did not clearly signal its interests across the board from the beginning.

By virtue of the fact that the administration has artificially narrowed its policy, it creates certain expectations about what it will and won't touch in the future, but it might actually decide to reverse course on those priorities, and that could cause miscalculation, tension, and crisis in the region.

DEVIN STEWART: So a miscalculation and the possibility of crisis; let's talk about that for a second. What type of thing do you imagine as being a possible scenario? Can you describe what worries you the most?

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: I think there is no question that right now the biggest set of concerns has to be with North Korea, and there are any number of crises we could discuss with respect to the Korean Peninsula: One, of course, is the fact that the administration has signaled that it might try to shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile if North Korea were preparing to test one, and one could see serious tensions arising between the United States and China over such an attempt.

But we could also see tensions return to the South China Sea. The South China Sea has been very quiet for the last year or so, partially because this administration has not been emphasizing it, but also because the Chinese have been engaged in negotiations with Rodrigo Duterte, the nationalist-populist-firebrand president in the Philippines.

But if the United States were to return to the South China Sea, and if Duterte were to decide that he wanted to take a stronger stand, we could easily see tensions return if China were to try to grab and build upon another island where it has not yet built facilities, or if the Chinese were to install some very high-end military capabilities like, let's say, missile systems on the islands they have already developed.

So the simple fact that the South China Sea has seemed quiet and relatively placid for the last year or so certainly does not mean it will stay that way. If there is some kind of snapback in the U.S.-China relationship, if things with North Korea go off the rails, the South China Sea is a logical place where we might see those tensions play out.

DEVIN STEWART: A lot of analysts are writing about the possibility of an all-out war in the Pacific these days. Is that something that occurs to you? Is it something you worry about?

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: It certainly occurs to me, and it is something we all have to worry about as kind of a backdrop, but I've been interested to follow the debates recently over Graham Allison's new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? Professor Allison has done us a service in laying out this argument in a fair amount of detail, but I also think there are a lot of problems with it. I certainly do not believe that the United States and China are in any way destined for war or that structural incentives bind them so tightly that they cannot make their way out of a trap.

There are a few reasons for that. The first is that the Thucydides trap is sort of a caricature in international relations that we think about when you have a dynamic where one power is rising and another power is declining. By and large, it is the power that is declining that has the incentive to go to war sooner rather than later to essentially preempt the rise of the potential challenger. So in that case, this would be the United States going to war against China preemptively to limits its reach and its growth.

We certainly have not seen anything like an instinct to go to war from the last administration, and I don't really think we'll see it in this one, either; at least I hope we won't. The reason for that is, of course, in the case of a war with China the cure would be far worse than the disease. That is, a war between the United States and China would decimate both militaries, and the United States cannot ultimately derail China's economic rise, nor does it want to. So I think a conscious U.S. decision to seek out a conflict with China is highly unlikely.

The other thing I would note is that on sort of a broad international relations level the Thucydides trap, whereby one power is rising and the other is declining in absolute terms, is actually not what we see playing out in Asia. China is, of course, rising relative to the United States; it is growing faster than we are, and its growth has been absolutely staggering. But the only place that the United States is declining in the world is with respect to China. Actually, the United States itself continues to grow, and with respect to most other developed nations it is growing at quite a respectable pace.

There is no question that the United States faces challenges in Asia when it comes to both how to push back against China in some areas and how to accommodate it in other areas, but the United States is not in the type of absolute decline that would force it to feel like it was trapped. So rather than feel like there are structural incentives that point toward war in this relationship, the situation that I feel we have on our hands is one that requires really skilled and careful management, but is one that ultimately can be handled peacefully.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have any other advice for the Trump administration in terms of the management of the security environment in Asia?

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: To sum up a number of my points, what I think the administration could most use at this point is to clearly and carefully define its national security and broader interests in Asia. Through this myopic focus on North Korea and the willingness to subcontract to China, I think the administration is really missing an opportunity to make clear what its broader goals are in Asia. I do expect that it will broaden its aperture eventually.

But when it comes to defining U.S. national interests, time is of the essence, not only because failing to do so will allow China more maneuvering space and more opportunity, but because the countries in the region are watching the U.S. messaging and the U.S. presence, and the longer that we go without clearly stating our objectives for the region, the more countries in the region—and in particular, Southeast Asia—are going to be likely to tilt toward China, afraid that we have become disinterested in them entirely. That would really be a shame, given the hard work that past administrations from both parties have put into a bipartisan Asia policy.

DEVIN STEWART: Great insights, Mira. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior fellow at CNAS in Washington, DC. Thanks again for speaking with us today.

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: My pleasure.

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