International Relations

America and Trump in the Asia Pacific
Ketan Patel and Christian Hansmeyer

The United States under Donald Trump has begun to chart a radically new course in Asia, a region that has long relied on America for stability and maintaining the balance of power. Trump has reversed, or sought to reverse, many of the long-standing policies and initiatives pursued by his predecessors, with potential long-term implications for the global balance of power. A multilateral and multifaceted engagement strategy in the region is being replaced by a transactional approach to security, trade and governance. This approach seeks to maximise gains while shifting risk to counterparties in a series of asymmetric transactions and deals which risk eroding a strategic leadership position decades in the making. Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda represents an abandonment of leadership in the setting of international norms for trade, investment and security, providing an opportunity for other countries to fill the vacuum being left behind. Long-term shifts in the political landscape which result will be difficult to predict, and their impact on trade, capital and financial flows cannot be planned for.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Christopher K. Colley and Sumit Gunguly

This chapter argues that although the Obama administration was originally preoccupied with domestic economic challenges and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ties between Washington and New Delhi improved by the end of Obama’s first year in office. The increasing links between New Delhi and Washington during this era are best explained by a mutual desire to hedge against the rise of China. However, other factors such as increasing economic ties also played a role in bringing the two states together. The trajectory of the relationship under the Trump administration is unlikely to depart significantly from that of his predecessor.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Exception, not transformation
Malcolm Cook

The decision to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and join the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit was one of the first enacted pillars of the Obama administration’s Rebalance to Asia policy. These moves highlighted the focus of the Rebalance on Southeast Asia and its core institution, ASEAN. It was hoped in Washington that more participation in multilateral, ASEAN-led bodies would significantly advance the United States’ regional interests. Across the first two years of his time in office to early 2019, President Donald Trump has focused far less on Southeast Asia, and his White House has reverted to an approach which is identifiably more Republican in character within the context of Asia. His administration has concentrated more on unilateral and bilateral courses of action, and upon the major powers of Northeast Asia once more. The Obama administration’s focus on Southeast Asia and ASEAN-led regional multilateralism, exemplified by its participation within the East Asia Summit, was in the end exceptional rather than transformational, by failing to guarantee a long-lasting legacy.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Open Access (free)
An endangered legacy
Matteo Dian

US relations with Japan under President Barack Obama can be divided into several phases. During the first phase (2009 to March 2011), and particularly during the tenure of former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the Obama administration had a difficult relationship with the DPJ-led government, which tried to promote more autonomy for Tokyo in the bilateral relationship. The Fukushima disaster and Operation Tomodachi helped to improve the atmosphere in the alliance. The return to power of Shinzo Abe in 2012 led to a new alignment of political priorities. Obama and Abe worked to consolidate the US–Japan alliance and promote negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Moreover, they drove significant progress in historical reconciliation, as testified by Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and by Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor, both in 2016. As of early 2019, this progress appears endangered by the policies promoted by the Trump administration which, despite attempts to reassure Tokyo, appears unpredictable in the realm of security and dangerously oriented towards protectionist trade policies.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Atul Bhardwaj

This chapter explores the maritime approaches of Presidents Obama and Trump in the Indo-Pacific region, against the backdrop of the continual rise of China’s modernising navy. It is argued that from 2009 Obama made the US Navy the linchpin in his Asia Pacific strategy, a policy choice to which Trump from 2017 added more marine machismo. More than a foreign policy shift, Obama’s ‘Pivot’ to Asia from around 2011 represented a fundamental reorientation of the US Navy from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This charting of a new course by American sea forces was not only aimed at revitalising US foreign policy, but also stemming its own decline. The chapter also asks if naval engagements in the South China Sea in particular, and a continued reliance on American sea power more broadly, is sufficient for Washington to protect its empire from challenges presented by continental China.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Promises and perils
Prashanth Parameswaran

The Obama administration’s approach towards Asia included an increased focus on Southeast Asia, which it saw as important in its own right but also to the advancement of wider US interests in the region. Yet as this chapter argues, by the end of Obama’s time in office, his administration’s record in Southeast Asia appeared mixed. The Obama years saw some notable successes, including institutionalising greater attention to the region and investing more in multilateralism and people-to-people ties. However, it also exhibited serious limitations, such as difficulties in confronting the reality of China’s rise in Southeast Asia, crafting a comprehensive regional economic approach, and articulating a clear vision for dealing with growing democracy and human rights challenges. In its first two years, the administration of Donald Trump built upon some elements of Obama’s regional legacy within its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy, while departing from it and undermining it in others.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Bruce Cumings

President Barack Obama’s historic Pivot to Asia had little appreciable effect on US North Korea policy, other than a dramatic uptick in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons development programme. Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ failed to halt or even slow North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction but did achieve greater levels of Sino-US cooperation over sanctions towards the regime. It also brought more US weapons and resources to the region – developments of which Beijing disapproved – and closer security ties between South Korea and Japan. Frustrations over North Korea intensified towards the end of Obama’s second term, as bipartisan support for a more assertive policy grew. Obama therefore set the stage for a more aggressive American stance for his successor to the White House, although no one anticipated President Trump’s hostile and violent rhetoric towards the tiny Asian state, only to reverse course and hold two historic summits with Kim Jong-un in mid-2018 and early 2019.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Robert Sutter

Throughout his administration’s first two years in office to early 2019, President Donald Trump, in his foreign policy approach towards Asia and the Indo-Pacific, appeared avowedly unpredictable. In many important respects, Trump pursued strategies which were oppositional to those of former President Barack Obama. Obama had stressed careful deliberation and a measured application of American power; transparency; predictability; and avoiding linkage, i.e. using pressure on one issue to pressure a target government to change its practices on another issue. On the one hand, Trump’s approach has had the advantage of keeping opponents (like China), as well as allies and partners, on the defensive in their affairs with Washington. On the other hand, American engagement in the region has been erratic and episodic. This has involved intense pressure from 2017 to prevent North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, followed by high-level summits yielding few positive results, as well as punitive tariffs against Chinese economic practices that widely impacted other states. Drift has so far characterised Trump’s policies on most other issues.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Autopilot, neglect or worse?
Nick Bisley

This chapter argues that US security policy in Asia is stuck somewhere between inertia and neglect. The United States lacks a coherent grand strategic vision for regional security. Rather, it views things through the narrow prism of bilateral relationships. This has strengthened China’s relative position and is prompting partners to plan for a more diminished US presence in Asia. The chapter first considers the Asia policy Trump inherited from Obama and then sketches out the range of possibilities that Trump’s Asia policy promised and what has transpired. Then it explains why US security policy can be described as continuity by neglect. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the consequences of this policy and how it is accelerating a significant transformation of Asia’s regional order.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific
Deepening ties and securitising cyberspace
Maryanne Kelton and Zac Rogers

During his two presidential terms, Barack Obama’s core political allegiance to liberal internationalism worked towards the promotion of rule of law, free trade, and democratic values at the centre of US foreign policy throughout the Asia Pacific. At the same time, his pragmatic realism aimed at securing the United States’ hard power position in the region. This approach extended to deepening ties with regional allies and fostering the growth and corporatisation of US cyber capability. On both counts, he found a willing ally in Australia. Obama’s specific legacy, then, was to consolidate US–Australia political and economic relations while simultaneously strengthening security ties across all strategic domains, with cyber security, space and maritime collaboration key features. The Trump administration’s derision for international norms, regimes, organisations and across related areas generated concerns in its first two years for Australia, especially regarding the sustainability of the liberal international order. Australia remains a willing US partner, but feels discomfort with the unpredictability of some of Trump’s policy choices.

in The United States in the Indo-Pacific