Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski
Donald Trump shifted US policy towards the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

It has been fashionable in recent years to claim that the Trump administration’s China policy was an “attitude not a policy.” But this was always a Washington cocktail party quip more than anything else.

Now, the declassified US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific – the 2018 handiwork of then-National Security Council (NSC) Asia director Matthew Pottinger – lays out the administration’s policy towards China and the rest of the region.

It’s worth reading to understand the administration’s systematic approach to asserting and defending US interests and principles in the Indo-Pacific. 

Considering that the Trump administration was frequently savaged for its supposed go-it-alone approach, the plan reveals much emphasis on aligning US policy and efforts with regional nations’ interests.   

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s accompanying letter notes that in 2018 on two occasions US National Security Council, Defense Department and State Department officials met in Hawaii with representatives from across the region to understand their perspectives and common interests and objectives.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien. Photo: AFP / Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

Not surprisingly, handling the People’s Republic of China is the main issue. But defense isn’t the sole focus. Rather, the strategic framework is a multi-faceted effort that includes economic, strategic influencing as well as intelligence and counter-intelligence lines of effort, among others.

Following the document’s release ten days ago the commentariat has commented as is its wont:

  • The document is  “banal” and every other administration has said the same thing.
  • It was Chinese assertiveness, not the Trump administration’s efforts, that coalesced a regional response to the PRC.
  • ASEAN wasn’t taken seriously because it appears on page nine (near the end) and ASEAN is lumped in the same line with the (much less important) Pacific Island Nations.
US soldiers during an exercise in Palau in 2019. Image: Facebook

And while there are some grudging admissions that the plan as written just might be acceptable, the claim is that it ultimately accomplished nothing.

Really? Perhaps compare 2017 with 2021.

And remember that the Trump administration had less than four years – closer to three in fact – to make its mark on the region.

A few of the highlights:

  • The Quad – a political alignment between Japan, Australia, India, and the US – is now a tangible reality, with impressive cooperative progress on the military front so far.
  • Japan has played a more assertive regional role and its military operates throughout the Indo-Pacific more than it ever has.
  • Australia has been a stalwart and is building up its defense and partnerships, and is taking on PRC overreach and standing up to Chinese economic coercion.
  • US ties with India are better than they have been in decades, and Indian ties with Australia and Japan are deepening.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump meet at the G7 Summit in France on August 26, 2019. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm
  • US relations with the Philippines have improved. They could hardly have been worse after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 referred to then-President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore.”
  • The Thais are back on speaking terms with the Americans, recovering from the Obama administration’s gratuitous humiliations and insults following the Thai coup in 2014.
  • US-Vietnam ties are gradually developing, with a US aircraft carrier stopping off in DaNang.
  • Taiwan finally felt like it had a friend in Washington rather than an erstwhile partner who seemed to wish Taiwan would disappear.
  • The Trump administration invited the leaders of the COFA states (Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau and Republic of the Marshall Islands) to the White House. Serving US secretaries of state and defense stopped off for visits in Micronesia and Palau. And last fall Palau asked the Americans to build military bases in the country.  These were all firsts.
  • Washington finally, if belatedly, paid attention to other Pacific Island Nations – offering financial and economic support – and for the first time designating a director for Oceania at the National Security Council.
  • On the trade front, an American administration at last did more than complain about Chinese intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices. 
  • Going after Chinese intelligence and influence operations and the PRC’s Thousand Talents technology theft scheme became a US priority. Scrutiny of PRC investment in the US was at long last tightened.
  • Finally, Chinese Communist Party human rights abuses, in Xinjiang against its Muslim population and elsewhere, are getting attention – and hit with sanctions. Hong Kong’s freedom is being snuffed out – as the PRC has always planned – but sanctions against key officials have been applied and Hong Kong’s special treatment canceled. Other administrations might have just shrugged, furrowed a brow and carried on with business as usual. 
A Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region. The US will seize all imports of tomato and cotton products from China’s Xinjiang region due to the use of forced labor, the Customs and Border Protection Agency announced in January 2021. Photo: AFP / Greg BAker

Of course the Trump administration didn’t get everything done that it might have, and it did some things it shouldn’t have done.

For starters, it should have allowed sanctions to shut down ZTE, the Chinese telecom company. Too often, in fact, the administration seemed to get tough with Chinese entities – and then let the target up off the mat.

Also, the Trump administration never throttled Chinese access to US capital markets as it should have.

One should keep in mind, however, that in implementing the Indo-Pacific policy – particularly trade and financial pressure on the PRC – the administration faced fierce opposition from Wall Street and the financial community, and major US companies and business lobbies.

Washington also should have supported South Korea after China applied punishing trade sanctions following the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea.

And when applying tariffs on Chinese goods, it was boneheaded to apply the same tariffs on American allies’ goods as well. 

Demanding the Japanese and South Koreans pay more for US troops stationed in their countries was ill-advised. It was the wrong fight to pick and an unnecessary distraction.

As for North Korea and the meetings between Trump and Kim Jong Un: the president was in a difficult spot given that an ally, South Korea, was pushing for the meetings. He should have used some different language during and after the meetings, but that happens. 

Managing an ally whose president sees the United States as the reason the Korean peninsula is divided, and who is an indifferent democrat, is a challenge.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump leave following a signing ceremony during their first summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

The Trump administration also took much too long to fill ambassadorships and other regional policy positions. This handicapped US efforts in the region.

As for criticism that China is still a serious threat as the Trump administration ends, one can hardly blame Trump for the fact that Beijing hasn’t apologized and promised to behave better. He at least made the PRC leadership more uncomfortable than had any of his predecessors in the last 40 years.

At the end of the day, no president or administration to date deserves a perfect score when it comes to Indo-Pacific affairs. And they’ve all done perplexing things.

But a president and his foreign policy staff are the men and women in the ring trying to defend US and partner interests – and indeed the very notion of consensual government, individual liberty, human rights and the so-called rules-based order.

It isn’t easy.

Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017 – although by no means out of the woods. Let’s hope the new team reads the Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework and uses it as a reference.

Regardless, they will be the ones in the ring, and one hopes they succeed.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.