Trump Rebalances with Asia


When Donald Trump first entered the Oval Office, there was widespread apprehension across Asia his leadership would mark a dramatic shift away from the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’, or policy of rebalancing. With his signature platform of “America First’ and delivering on his promise to remove the U.S.A. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, there was a pervasive sense Washington would turn more isolationist and protectionist.

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – Yet as previous presidencies have shown us, what is said and promised on the campaign trail is often discarded as the realities of office set in. And for those who are watching Washington closely, Trump’s past rhetoric is no longer being matched by his policies on Asia.

In fact, there is accumulating evidence Trump and his team has started to formulate and execute a strategic vision of engagement with Asia that will prove more assertive than under his predecessors; one example is Barack Obama, who, although he was considered an eloquent statesman, was often criticized by seasoned diplomats such as Henry Kissinger for being too passive with other great powers such as Russia and China.

Until now, Trump’s Asia policy has been viewed primarily through the lens of his tough and no-nonsense stance on North Korea. But there is much more than meets the eye: Over the past month, starting with the White House’s release last December of its National Security Strategy, the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy and intimations Washington is considering coming back into the TPP, it is becoming increasingly clear the U.S.A. is not willing to cede influence to China in the Asia-Pacific.

Just last week, Trump showed his hand in the Swiss snow-crested ski resort of Davos as he made the closing keynote speech at the World Economic Forum. While most commentators noted there was nothing new in the president’s speech, his remarks about the TPP—a 12-nation agreement among the United States and Pacific rim countries—immediately caught the attention of Asia. Talking about trade deals, Trump said the U.S.A. is “prepared to negotiate mutually beneficial, bilateral trade agreements with all countries,” and “this will include the countries within the TPP.” But what came next in his speech was especially interesting: “We would consider negotiating [with TPP members] either individually or as a group if it is in the interests of all.” And in a post-speech interview with CNBC, Trump confirmed “If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.”

While Trump and his economics team mull over the possibility of coming back into the TPP, the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy shows Trump and his generals have few qualms about deterring China.

Just a few days after issuing the strategy paper, which departs from previous ones emphasizing the threat of terrorism and focuses instead on “great power competition” with Russia and China, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis visited Vietnam and Indonesia last week to discuss the strengthening of bilateral defense cooperation.

In the larger context of U.S. defense policy, the Pentagon considers Indonesia and Vietnam as critical junior partners in the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, which is an informal alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia and India. Since its creation in 2007, there has been speculation it could eventually emerge as Asia’s version of NATO.

In talks with the Vietnamese leadership, Mattis focused on America’s commitment to upholding the freedom of navigation in the Pacific. Despite its turbulent past relations during the Cold War, Vietnam today is a close ally of the United States as it continues to dispute Beijing’s extra-legal claims of sovereignty over two main island chains in the South China Sea which has resulted in repeated clashes with Chinese boats.

In Indonesia, Mattis met with President Joko Widodo, Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto to discuss maritime cooperation. In drawing a contrast to China, Mattis noted “The point I want to make is, we respect Asia’s sovereign nations with a sovereign voice and sovereign decisions, and we don’t think anyone else should have a veto authority over their economic, their diplomatic or their security decisions.”

For sure, the U.S. defense establishment is keenly aware of Indonesia’s importance as part of what the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy refers to as its “networked security architecture” in Asia. Mattis is certainly appreciative of Jakarta’s pushing back Beijing by renaming a portion of the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, and as part of his effort to strengthen defense cooperation there were serious talks about expanding training programs with the special forces unit Kopassus and the procurement of U.S. military equipment which, reportedly, would cover dozens of aircraft valued at more than $4 billion.

As a long-term historical ally of the United States dating back to the Soeharto era, Indonesia should warmly welcome the prospect of stronger defense cooperation. A more stable and peaceful future for Asia rests firmly upon the United States providing a counterbalance to China as it continues to expand rapidly its power and influence in the region. Whilst some members of Jokowi’s cabinet have been inclined in recent years to tilt more heavily toward China, the president should be mindful more balanced relations to include the United States is within the national interest.