U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, walk past an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017
The East Asia region and its developments – especially developments related to two key players in that region; that is, China and North Korea – have been among mental priorities of US President Donald Trump since he launched his election campaign. Therefore, he tried during the first few months of his term in office to further expand these mental priorities. A review of the United States’ behavior in East Asia will show that as time goes by, Trump and the US policy are getting more closer to the country’s traditional policy, especially policies proclaimed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Of course, part of this change of course is related to China’s smart game in the region, but another part is a result of Trump’s own understanding in his “period of training.” At any rate, it seems that Donald Trump has relatively given up the aggressive policy that he followed with regard to East Asia during early months of his tenure and is trying to react to developments in this region in a more coherent manner. This paper will try to lay out some of the reasons behind this relative change in Trump’s mentality and policies toward the East Asia region.
Understanding complexities in the East Asia region
As said before, as time goes on, the nature of the United States’ policies and Trump’s attitude toward the East Asia region are changing more from the previous aggressive policy to more moderation. Naturally, a reason for this change is his increased understanding of the complexities that characterize this region. Rapid and injudicious access to this region has been made difficult due to a number of factors, which include presence of China as a big power in this region, rivalries from other key actors like Japan, increased strategic need of regional countries to China and its investment, existence of profound territorial disputes among regional actors, and finally, existence of profound economic interdependence among various political actors in this region. It seems that, at the present time, Trump has got a good grasp of, at least, part of these problems.
Perhaps, it is due to these complexities that renowned American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski believes that US presence in this region, especially in view of the ongoing crisis surrounding North Korea, can lead to calamitous results for both the United States and the entire region if that presence comes without a coherent strategy. It must be noted that Trump’s increased understanding of this region is also related to the smart and well calculated game that China played during the period that is considered as the “training period” for the United States president. On the one hand, the Chinese took various measures, especially through inviting Henry Kissinger, to increase Trump’s understanding of this region and buy time until they build a new strategy for dealing with the Trump phenomenon. On the other hand, through their knowledge of Trump’s behavior and his problem-oriented mentality, they succeeded to focus on more important issues such as the North Korea crisis, accepting or rejecting globalization, accepting or rejecting the Paris Agreement on climate change and so forth.
Solving these problems was, naturally, more complicated. For example, although Trump had said with regard to North Korea that Obama’s policy of strategic patience in the face of Pyongyang had ended, it seems that he is practically following in Obama’s footsteps. In other words, he has been following Obama’s policy of mounting pressure on North Korea, but in a more expanded way. The failure of conservative politicians in South Korea and Seoul’s effort to boot interaction with North Korea were other developments in the security environment of East Asia, which further increased complexities in this region. In addition to South Korea’s attitude toward North Korea and its differences with the United States, which have added to complexities in this region, another factor that has increased those complexities is China’s potentialities and an effort by the United States to take advantage of those potentialities to find a solution for the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The United States is apparently endeavoring through mounting pressure on China to find a solution to the Korea crisis. However, China is sure not to give up its main trump card in the face of the United States, though sometimes it seems that China lacks enough potential to convince North Korea and there are temporary differences between the two countries. The crisis surrounding North Korea and the US effort to take advantage of China’s potentialities in this regard, are other complicating factors facing the United States and Donald Trump. The issue of Taiwan, the South China Sea and the East China Sea are among other issues, which if added to complexities of relations between China and the United States, will make it very difficult for Trump to reach a final conclusion on the East Asia region.
Understanding the difficulties and limitations of unilateralism
As said before, complicated relations that exist in this region played an important role in making the United States withdraw from the aggressive policy that it followed during early months of Trump’s term in office. However, in addition to those complexities, gradual understanding of the difficulties and limitations of unilateralism, especially during past few years, has put increasing strategic pressure on the United States to take special actions. Perhaps from 2001 to 2008, the American economy was powerful enough to support the country’s security and foreign policy as well as its long-term actions in a proper manner. However, after the economic crisis started to sweep through the West, including the U.S., it appeared that the country’s capacity to take long-term strategic actions has slightly decreased. On the other hand, the power of other actors such as China, Russia and India has increased, further reducing the capacities that Washington had in the past to take international action. For example, gross domestic product figures for the United States, China, India, and Russia respectively stood at 10.3, 1.21, 0.48, and 0.26 trillion dollars in 2000. The figures, however, rose to 18.7, 12.25, 2.38, and 1.18 trillion dollars, respectively, in 2016 and China is expected to overtake the United States in this regard between 2025 and 2030.
As said before, the economic crisis in the West and weakness of the United States economic stamina has practically deprived this country of the ability to take long-term strategic actions. On the other hand, the need for revising defense and security alliances to which the United States is a member is being felt more than before, while an effort is being made by regional allies of the United States to play a more prominent role in regional and international security equations. This means that while up to the present time, the United States accused such big powers as China of being “free riders” and not willing to accept responsibility with regard to regional equations and crises, today, the scope of those accusations has expanded to include the US allies such as the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as Japan and South Korea. This issue may indicate that the burden of global commitments and management of regional and international developments has become too heavy for the United States. On the other hand, increased cost of the US presence in various parts of the world can be relatively beneficial for other big powers like China and Russia, because it will make it possible for them to get more concessions from the United States.
Understanding internal difficulties and limitations of the United States
During his first months in office, Trump was busy and preoccupied with theorizing the principle of “unpredictability” of the United States in the face of other big powers and other actors, who are not in line with the United States in international politics. However, now it seems that internal complexities and challenges in the US politics are playing a more prominent role in determining Trump’s policies and are taking him back to the “traditional policy” that Washington pursued with respect to East Asian countries and China. Differences among members of Trump’s political team about withdrawing or staying in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), frequent and ambiguous changes in that team, announcing Trump’s policy for the revival of the United States’ power, creating doubts among regional allies of the US about disruption or continuation of Washington’s support for them, disputes about possible vote rigging, and the rise of widespread domestic protests against Trump’s policies have all served to force the US president and other Republican figures to return to the United States’ traditional policy toward East Asia.
Mohammad Zare, an expert on East Asia affairs, is the guest contributor to IRAS.
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