US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida, November 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder
US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida, November 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Hillary Clinton was an architect of the US pivot to Asia.  In a Clinton presidency, it could be safely assumed, the pivot would chug along its China-containment track: establishing a clear, bright line between the norm-violating behavior of the People’s Republic of China and the liberal international order led by the United States and supported by Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the other East Asian democracies, exemplified by the united front of states indignant at the PRC’s defiance of the The Hague arbitral commission’s ruling on the South China Sea, keystoned by the US nuclear umbrella, and laser focused on deterring US allies from acquiring their own nuclear capabilities.

Donald Trump’s shocking election has thrown these comfortable assumptions into disarray, and the question is being asked all over Asia, What’s Trump’s game?

Trump is all in on the China-bashing element of the pivot.  He has declared Peter Novarro’s Death by China to be his lodestar.

But then there’s Trump’s anti-globalism (no TPP!); his retaliatory trade policies (renegotiate trade deals!); his adversarial attitude toward key allies (Japan and South Korea should shoulder more of the burden of the U.S. presence!), disinterest in participating in a Japan-North Korean war (“Good luck! Enjoy yourself, folks!”); and disdain for that pillar of US security policy in Asia, the exclusive US nuclear umbrella (an apparent tolerance for the interest of Asian states in going nuclear that is both realistic and perhaps fatal to US pretensions in the Pacific).

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gingerly transmitted his congratulations to the President-Elect, while no doubt pondering the fact that TPP is now almost certainly dead and Trump may also wish to take out his Age of Disco resentments against Japan’s economic transgressions against the United States in the 1980s on the current regime.  Japan now has plenty of justification for presenting itself—and acting as—the grown-up in the Asian security regime, and gradually displacing the United States from its leading role.

But maybe it’s not all downside.

Though the thought is anathema in the think tanks of the Beltway that helped Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell construct the intricate edifice of the pivot, Trump’s bull in a China shop disregard for the subtleties of US policy might help extract the United States from some awkward pivot-derived cul de sacs.

The US strategy of galvanizing the anti-China alliance by sticking a finger in the PRC’s sore spot—its risible territorial cum maritime claims in the South China Sea—was already in trouble because of the PRC’s display of implacable resolve in refusing to accept the UNCLOS arbitral ruling.  Then came the Philippines’ defection from the alliance, Duterte’s swerve toward economic engagement with the PRC over immediate enforcement of the ruling, and his turn away from military cooperation with the United States.

A Trump administration opens up potential vistas for Duterte.  In remarks congratulating Trump, Duterte tried to close the books on his unilateral flame war with President Obama with the statement, “I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won.”

Under Trump, the US could acquiesce to Duterte’s sidelining the UNCLOS arbitration and, in the best callous strongman fashion, decline to flay Duterte for the alleged excesses of his anti-drug/judicial murder campaign.

Duterte would perhaps appreciate US good offices in declining to provide his domestic opponents with human rights and China-appeasement ammunition to take shots at the “Wild Man of Asia and Enemy of America” bulls-eye he’s managed to paint on his own back.  Maybe in return, Duterte walks back his termination of joint military exercises with the US, at least outside of Mindanao, thereby bringing pleasure to the Pentagon and his own military while mollifying his powerful patron (and custodian of the US-Philippine military partnership, ex-president and ex-Chief of Staff/Defense Minister) Fidel Ramos in the process.

We will soon find out how aggressive the United States pivot commentariat is in demanding the Trump administration honor the Hague ruling as the centerpiece of America’s Asia strategy and Philippine policy.

Another area in which a Trump discontinuity with Obama policy could disentangle the United States from a pivot-exacerbated dilemma might be in the area of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

The South Korean government, while perhaps grateful for a reminder the ROK is not the sole or perhaps even pre-eminent venue for political catastrophe, is openly nervous about Trump’s impact on its problematic relations with the North.

With good reason.

At the present time, the United States is boxed into a hard-core counter-proliferation strategy demanding North Korea divest itself of its nuclear arsenal, thanks to President Obama’s credential as a Peace Nobelist for nuclear non-proliferation—and for the more mundane reason that US strategic pre-eminence in Asia will be undermined if South Korea and Japan respond to the North Korean threat with nuclear programs of their own.

With North Korea developing an arsenal of some size, working on delivery vehicles, and approaching a US-drawn red line in its nuclear capability, US and ROK planners have put decapitation strikes (against the North Korean leadership and/or its nuclear facilities) on the agenda.  The less Armageddon-ish option is for “crushing sanctions” whose chances of success has been undercut by the placement of THAAD missile defense in South Korea, thereby infuriating the PRC, the one actor who could make the sanctions succeed.

Faced with some pretty unpalatable alternatives, some American strategists are starting to lean toward a position that the US should do what North Korea wanted all along—direct negotiations leading to acceptance of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons state status.

Impossible for Obama.  But for Trump?

Trump was rather blasé on the campaign trail about the possibility of Asia nuking up, leaving open the possibility that he might decide to take the negotiation track after all, especially if some advisers and think tanks are prepared to provide some political cover.

But whatever happens with Japan, the Philippines, or North & South Korea, it appears doubtful that warm relations with the PRC will make it on the agenda.

China is the designated bad actor in Trump’s narrative of American decline, and it is hard to imagine a Trump China policy that does not balance his conciliatory posture toward Russia with high-profile confrontations with the PRC on issues like trade, cyber, industrial espionage, and the like.

Also, to keep the military/industrial/security complex off his back, Trump needs to come up with a mission in Asia that addresses China and satisfies the Pentagon.

And that might very well be Trump’s Reaganesque promise to build the 350-ship fleet that is the apogee in wish fulfillment for the US Navy or at least American shipyards (the current target is 308), and provides the military bookend to Trump’s civilian infrastructure buildout back-of-the-envelope stimulus plan/economic and political panacea.

Since the PRC has nearly spent itself to ruin with a similar strategy, it might not be a good sign if  Beijing is willing to purchase the hundreds of billions of dollars of US government debt that will be needed to enable Trump’s announced programs.

However, building those ships and sailing them around Asia in joint exercises and FONOPs that challenge China might provide the budget-fattening enhancement that the Pentagon craves and was, to some extent, deprived of by the Obama administration.

The good news for China is that Trump’s worldview is reportedly narrowly transactional i.e. he has the attention span of a hummingbird, and would tend to flit from issue to issue for short term advantage instead of executing the massive, difficult, and risky multi-decade plan to bring China to heel via the pivot and realize the dreams of “America’s Pacific Century.”

The bad news for China is that Trump’s worldview is reportedly narrowly transactional and, faced with determined lobbying on behalf of the pivot by its extensive network of entrenched advocates at the Pentagon, in think tanks, media, and industry, he and his overwhelmed foreign policy team might largely cede Asian policy to its current practitioners.

In which case, China gets the worst of both worlds: Trump and the pivot.

Peter Lee

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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