US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Thomas Peter
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017. Photo: Reuters / Thomas Peter

Since the remarkable growth of China and some other emerging economic powers such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, US presidents have devoted special attention to Asia. Barack Obama, for instance, put forth his “Pivot to Asia,” which was a strategic change from the previous focus on the Middle East and Europe. But as it turned out, it sought to increase US presence in Asia in order to promote its economic and strategic interests, which merely fueled Chinese fears of American containment.

Similarly, Donald Trump proposed his “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which is the extension and descendant of Obama’s Pivot to Asia. So it should not come as a surprise that many scholars perceive that both US strategies have been a source of tension in Asia, since they focused on containing China and pushed regional countries to take a side between Washington and Beijing.

On some level, Trump’s Asia policy is the continuation of earlier presidents’ strategies toward Asian countries, that is, establishing and deepening US ties and bolstering America’s strategic position in the region to minimize the rise of China. In fact Trump’s Asia policy revolves around three major issues: US-China trade, US-North Korea nuclear and missile diplomacy, and the influence of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy in the region.

US-China trade

Since Trump assumed power in the White House, imposing several tariffs on China has been used as a tool of negotiation, which adversely influences US-China economic ties. He went a step further and waged a trade war with China, so we have witnessed tit-for tat policies of imposing tariffs on agricultural and industrial products from by great economic powers. In fact Trump’s use of tariffs is part of a larger protectionist strategy to narrow its trade deficit with China.

Given the existence of deep economic ties between US and China, it is very likely that their economies will enter severe recessions. Since the imposition of tariffs, both the US and China have seen them take a major toll on their economic growth. The Chinese economy has faced a significant slowdown, while American farmers companies and consumers encountered considerable difficulties.

Some scholars believe that Trump’s trade war will provide the US economy an opportunity to wean itself off its dependence on trade with China and open its markets to European, Southeast Asian and Latin American countries. However, this patchwork strategy cannot offset the losses incurred by trade war.

US-North Korea diplomacy

Since its withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon (NPT) in January 2003, North Korea has conducted several nuclear and missile tests that have been a matter of concern to the US and its allies in Asia. Trump went to great lengths to bring Kim Jong Un to the negotiation table and his diplomatic activity led to an unprecedented bilateral summit between the two leaders on June 12, 2018, in which Kim suggested some signals of “full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” However, since that time, Washington and Pyongyang have had several meeting with each other that ended in failure and didn’t live up to the expectations of both sides.

Now the question arises of why the US and North Korea cannot resolve their differences on nuclear and missile issues. First,  Trump’s unpredictable foreign policies, his withdrawal from international treaties and the existence of diplomatic alienation toward some revolutionary states such as China, Iran and Cuba over the past decades prevent Kim from establishing bilateral relations with the US based on trust.

Second, the existence of a recalcitrant state such as North Korea in Asia could provide the US an opportunity to increase its military presence in the region and ramp up its weapons sales to Asian countries under the guise of creating a security umbrella against Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior. Therefore, the US much prefers to keep North Korean issues unresolved to bolster its strategic position in the region, but that doesn’t mean that the US seeks to close its eyes on any action that would jeopardize Washington’s security and interests. In order to strike a balance, the US has resorted to various sanctions imposed either by itself or international communities to pressure Pyongyang.

Indo-Pacific Strategy

The Indo-Pacific region is very important for the US, since it contains more than half of the global population and is home to more than 40% of global economic output, including the economies of China, Japan, and South Korea. The Trump administration has used the term “Indo-Pacific” in its official documents to highlight the importance of India in US strategy. Pinning its hopes on New Delhi, Washington believes that India, as a prominent rising power, has the capacity to contain China.

In fact, US attempts at establishing deep relations with India is aimed not only at helping check the rise of China, but also preventing any mutual cooperation between China and India that could jeopardize US hegemony in the region. The US considers its Indo-Pacific Strategy enormously important for balancing power in the region.

Moreover, the US is fully aware that if it loses its economic base and presence in Asia, its military and diplomatic involvement with the region will weaken. Thus economic aspects of this strategy serve a crucial role in bolstering the US position in the region and containing China.

In fact, in many ways, Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is an extension of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” with one big difference: Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was the economic aspect of his Pivot to Asia, created a unified economic bloc in Asia, but Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy lacks such an economic base.

During the past two decades, it seems that US Asia policy has focused on containing China in its own back yard and maintained the primacy of the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Trump has taken the same stance, but because of the lack of cohesive strategies toward Asian countries, the US withdrawal from the TPP and adhering to “America first” and unilateral policies, his Asia policy tends to be complicated.

Behzad Abdollahpour

Behzad Abdollahpour is an MA student of North American studies at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran. He is interested in US-China foreign policy, comparative politics, and cultural ties between China and Iran. His research focuses particularly on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the China’s rising role in the international arena.

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