Now that the hoopla has faded on President Donald Trump’s five-nation swing through Asia this month, it’s time to take a clearer look at where US policy in the region stands.
Was Trump’s trip a diplomatic success and, against the backdrop of a nuclear crisis with North Korea, was anything really achieved in America’s relations with China and other Asian countries? And is the US shifting its strategic view of the region by using the term ‘Indo-Pacific,’ rather than Asia-Pacific? What is the significance of 11 Asian nations salvaging a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that Trump exited as one of his first acts in office?
J. Stapleton Roy is a former US Ambassador to China (1991-1995) who also served as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. He is currently a vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, the international consulting firm founded by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Roy calls Trump’s tour a positive insofar as he endorsed negotiations with North Korea, avoided any stumbles in Beijing and bolstered ties between the US, Japan and South Korea. He downplays Washington’s new Indo-Pacific reference as “cosmetic,” but says Trump’s exit from TPP benefits China by making the US irrelevant in Asia’s rules-based trading order.
“The President’s trip to Asia was diplomatically necessary and the fact that he made the trip ends up as a plus in terms of the Trump administration’s foreign policy,” Roy tells Asia Times in an exclusive interview. “In that sense, it was a success.”
Roy notes that Trump further strengthened his relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, though the president doesn’t appear to have forged a similar closeness with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“Moon comes with some positions that the Trump administration doesn’t fully agree with. But overall, the US-South Korean relationship is strong and I think Trump’s visit there further strengthens it,” he says.
In China, Roy says the key question surrounding Trump’s visit was whether any divisive issues would emerge in Sino-US ties, especially with regard to trade and North Korea. But Roy, a career diplomat whose assignments took him to Bangkok, Taipei, Jakarta and other posts, notes that the sensitive issues were handled without disrupting Trump’s state visit in any way.
“The Chinese went all out to give President Trump the type of reception that he responds to most positively. They bent over backwards to flatter him. It had the desired effect and this is reflected in his very positive comments about President Xi Jinping,” says China-born Roy, who speaks Chinese fluently.
At the same time, Roy says that outstanding trade issues were not solved, although Trump’s visit allowed the two countries to come to grips with their differences to a greater degree.
Will talk with Pyongyang
On North Korea, Roy says the most positive outcome is that the president openly endorsed the desirability of negotiations with Pyongyang. Previously, Roy noted that Trump had explicitly criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for advocating negotiations with the North, saying that such negotiations were “a waste of time.”
In Roy’s assessment, there has to be a purpose for international sanctions against North Korea. He says if US expectations are that sanctions will spur regime change, that’s not going to happen. And China, according to the former ambassador, would certainly not support toppling leader Kim Jong-un as a desirable outcome because it believes that instability in North Korea is more dangerous than living with the current regime there.
“So it was very significant now for Trump to speak in favor of negotiations with North Korea,” Roy said.
But Roy says the key question that remains unanswered is what will the purpose of such negotiations be?
“If they keep testing, we cannot stabilize the situation and that means it becomes increasingly dangerous”
Roy does not believe that North Korea would be prepared to discuss “denuclearization” given the current state of play. He says that point passed when, in 2005, a joint statement was issued by all parties in which North Korea committed itself to not going nuclear, but was not built on.
“It seems to me to stabilize the situation with North Korea, we have to somehow put a cap on their continued testing. This would include both missiles and nuclear devices,” Roy said. “If they keep testing, we cannot stabilize the situation and that means it becomes increasingly dangerous.”
How does Trump’s decision to return North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism and announce new sanctions play into this?
“Frankly, it’s largely a symbolic gesture. It doesn’t significantly increase the pressure on North Korea. It does at the margins, but it’s not going to be a decisive factor in dealing with North Korea,” Roy said.
He adds that, as far as he knows, there are no behind-the-scenes diplomatic actions that were disrupted by Monday’s move by the US.
Indo-Pacific reference ‘cosmetic’
Some analysts argue that Washington seems to have shifted its strategic view by using the term Indo-Pacific to describe the Asia region in the lead up to Trump’s visit. The geopolitical spin appears to put more weight on India and the Indian Ocean in a deliberate counterbalance to China.
But Roy downplays Indo-Pacific as a “cosmetic change” in the language used. “It has some significance in the sense that it represents an area to expand Asia to include the Indian Ocean area as opposed to the Middle East or Europe or Central Asia,” Roy says.
However, he points out that the Indo-Pacific already exists as a sphere in terms of US military command of the Pacific region, which emanates from Hawaii. “So in a sense (the term Indo-Pacific) brings our diplomatic scope in line with the military responsibilities that are centered on the US Pacific Command,” Roy says.
What of India’s role? “It represents an effort to engage India more fully in the problems of East Asia,” he says, adding that, for the moment, there is a very clear distinction between the problems in East Asia vs. the ones in South Asia.
In South Asia, Roy says the focus is presently on the India-Pakistani relationship and Afghanistan. But he notes that East Asian countries are less concerned about these issues, with the exception of China, which has a special relationship with Pakistan.
“India, though it’s beginning to show a growing interest and involvement in East Asia, is still a minor factor in the balance of power, and the management of the difficult issues there, which would include North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea,” Roy says.
TPP exit made US ‘irrelevant’
Is it significant that nearly a dozen nations are moving ahead with the TPP without the US?
Roy says it is. He notes that trade relations with the US are among the most critical issues for countries in East Asia and that all have bought into the multilateral approach that was reflected in the TPP.
“What the president has made crystal clear during his visit to East Asia was that the United States rejects the multilateral approach and it wants to pursue bilateral trade relations with all of the countries of East Asia.”
While the US has, over the years, pursued both a multilateral and bilateral stance in trade with Asia, Roy stresses that its main approach has been a multilateral one. This is why Trump’s approach spells trouble.
“If you look at East Asia, we tend to think of the challenge from China as primarily a military one. But China’s influence in East Asia is a function of its economic strength”
“When the Trump administration rejected the TPP without even studying it, it not only was disappointing to some of our closest friends and allies in East Asia, it resulted in the US becoming irrelevant to the rules-setting process that is continuing in East Asia,” Roy says.
In the end, this benefits China, which is filling the rules-based leadership position vacated by the US.
“If you look at East Asia, we tend to think of the challenge from China as primarily a military one. But China’s influence in East Asia is a function of its economic strength,” Roy says.
The other countries, he says, want the US engaged to balance China’s rising power. “But the United States isn’t rising to that challenge and that is a major deficiency in the Trump administration’s approach to Asia,” Roy sums up.
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times