As US President Donald Trump heads to Asia, the American foreign policy class is holding its breath. The President is, after all, ‘transactional’ – and might ask allies to do something in exchange for US support. The other side of this double-edged insult is that Trump might sell out American principles.
They needn’t worry. The most difficult part of the trip will be forcing a smile if he’s required to wear a Philippine ‘barong’ shirt.
Trump will give a few speeches, and otherwise say the right things about American commitment to the region and “a rules-based order,” and the like. But the audience will be left thinking: “Now show us.” Most Asian nations, and Southeast Asian nations, in particular, are in a bind owing to previous US administrations’ handiwork.
China is tossing around a lot of money, has beefed up its military, and threw down the gauntlet at the 19th People’s Congress. Its patience is not limitless, and it’s getting harder for regional nations to hedge or hold China at bay.
ASEAN and the People’s Liberation Army will be holding their first joint military exercise shortly. The American military is no longer the only show in town.
As important as what Trump does in Asia is what he does after he goes home – to give allies and friends concrete reasons to see the United States as an alternative to Chinese domination.
Some ideas on stalling Chinese domination
Other presidents have given good speeches in Asia – and the US military and business people are active there. But if Trump proposes doing more of the same, it’s a losing trend. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has taken de facto control of the South China Sea and is ready to do the same in the East China Sea. China is increasingly seen as the indispensable economic partner for regional nations – not the United States.
Trump gets plenty of advice, so some more won’t hurt: Once back at the White House, summon Wilbur Ross and the administration’s economic team and tell them to stop picking fights with America’s friends in the region. That’s low hanging fruit that doesn’t matter – and it irks countries that you are expecting to do more defense-wise.
The problem is the PRC. For starters, look for $100 billion in counter-vailing penalties (call them whatever you will) as punishment for intellectual property theft over the last few decades. Don’t bother about what US companies were dumb enough to give up voluntarily. One can’t blame the Chinese for that.
Don’t ignore the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Maybe it was a bad deal, but pulling out left a void – political as much as economic –and China is filling it. Come up with something better – and let the region know.
Next, call in the Department of State – with the economic guys still in the room – and ask if they think supporting free, democratic people on Taiwan is more important than placating an aggressive dictatorship and being able to buy cheap things at Wal-Mart? If not, find some officials who value US principles – and are not so ‘transactional.’
Also, ask the State Department to explain why a coup in Egypt (and a violent one at that) was worse than a coup in Thailand – and warranted humiliating a longstanding and important US ally? The answer will require sophistry. The State Department needs fewer sophists.
With all present, read the Taiwan Relations Act and resolve to live up to it. Stop treating Taiwan and its officials as if they’re South American drug lords. Allow Taiwan’s military officers in the US to wear their uniforms, and end the State Department’s self-imposed ban on active duty American generals visiting Taiwan. Send the US Navy on port calls and invite Taiwan to next year’s RIMPAC exercise.
While you’re on the subject of RIMPAC, bring in Secretary of Defense Mattis and your uniformed and civilian military advisors, and ask them a few questions.
Finally, use your appointment power and fill all Asia/Pacific positions – and with people who don’t think the last 30 years of Asia policy have been a splendid success.
Ask why the PRC should be invited to RIMPAC – and whether two previous invitations improved Chinese behavior? Put the invitation on hold – at least until PRC ‘repo men’ retrieve the Chinese-made missile transporters from North Korea that make it nearly impossible to detect an ICBM being readied for launch towards Los Angeles.
Then ask why it will take over 30 years to build a 355-ship navy as your Under-Secretary of Navy recently said? Find some people who think it can be done faster – as it can be.
Ask US Navy brass about the Littoral Combat Ship? A correct answer will involve sailing them back to the US and scrapping them – and building more useful ships instead.
Even the US Marines have some explaining to do: Ask which Asian militaries can do real-world, short-notice amphibious operations with or without the Americans? After 50 years of exercises there ought to be at least one. After the harrumphing subsides, tell the Marine generals to set some smart captains and majors onto the matter. That will take care of things.
By now everyone is trying to make themselves inconspicuous. You might note that the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress made a compelling case that democracy is a failed Western concept. State and Defense Departments have ‘strategic communications’ staff. Ask what it is they actually do?
Finally, use your appointment power and fill all Asia/Pacific positions – and with people who don’t think the last 30 years of Asia policy have been a splendid success. It seems like you’re counting on evaporation to ‘drain the swamp’. That will take forever.
Do some of these things and you’ll give America’s friends in Asia reason to believe what you said while visiting.