A Tale of Two Asia Policies


The United States has “abandoned its traditional presence in the Asia Pacific,” declares Korean expert Oh Ei Sun. “Donald Trump is checking out of Asia,” warns Peter Hartcher, international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. From Tokyo to Singapore, critics are questioning U.S. staying power in Asia. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just announced several major new Indo-Pacific initiatives, so why are U.S. friends in Asia so concerned?

The answer, of course, comes back to President Donald Trump. His decision not to attend this year’s critical Asia summits is just the latest signal that the United States is simultaneously pursuing two separate policies: Trump’s and his administration’s. The president’s “America First” agenda is fundamentally at odds with his administration’s efforts to, in Pompeo’s words, “deepen engagement” in Asia. These two cannot be reconciled. The unfortunate result is a muddled set of policies and a diminution of U.S. influence in Asia.

The Good

The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy both articulated a regional strategy of deep engagement. The administration labeled this approach the promotion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” But critics asked for specifics. In July and August, the administration provided its first concrete details when Pompeo gave two major speeches on Asia policy.

In Washington, Pompeo announced that $113 million would be funneled into three new efforts: a digital connectivity and cyber security partnership, an initiative to enhance development growth through energy, and an infrastructure transaction and assistance network. Several days later in Singapore, Pompeo committed to shift nearly $300 million in funding into accounts for foreign military financing and countering transnational crime in Asia. Meanwhile, administration officials continued to push for a doubling of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s (a U.S. government agency that helps American businesses invest in developing markets) access to U.S. Treasury credit, to over $60 billion.

These are worthwhile initiatives. The dollar amounts may not be huge — Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi quickly belittled the new initiatives by saying, “it should be 10 times higher, for a superpower with $16 trillion of GDP” — but that is the wrong way to think about these commitments. China’s state-driven development model lends itself to large dollar figures, but the U.S. approach is privately driven, so American government efforts are more of a force multiplier. The U.S. government isn’t betting that $113 million will make a difference on its own, just that it will incentivize far more private investment. Washington’s hope is that this private investment will be more attractive over the long term than Beijing’s massive but underdelivering Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to connect land and sea trade routes running from China through Eurasia to Western Europe and Africa.

Although China was seldom mentioned in Pompeo’s remarks, the contrast with Beijing’s approach could not have been clearer. He noted,

Our good faith as a partner is evident in our support for economic development that honors local development and national sovereignty. The United States does not invest for political influence but instead practices partnership economics.

He also defined the goals of a free and open Indo-Pacific as protection from coercion, good governance, respect for fundamental rights and liberties, access to seas and airways, peaceful resolution of disputes, fair and reciprocal trade, open investment, transparency, and connectivity. It was hard not to read these as direct refutations of China’s regional approach.

Pompeo and other members of the administration are to be commended for putting forward a positive regional agenda with real specifics. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that last month’s speeches may signify the high-water mark of the administration’s Asia policy.

The Bad

“It is clearly in America’s strategic interest to deepen engagement in the region,” Pompeo insisted. But just weeks later, the White House announced that Trump would forgo this year’s East Asia Summit and U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Singapore as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Papua New Guinea. George W. Bush attended every APEC summit during his presidency and Barack Obama missed only one, which still left a bitter taste in the region. Last year, Trump was dragged to APEC, but couldn’t be convinced to stay just a few extra hours for the East Asia Summit. This year he isn’t going to either one.

This is a bad sign in a region where showing up is half the battle.

Some believe it is better for Trump to avoid the summits altogether. Indeed, Trump may have done more harm than good during his appearance at last year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Danang, Vietnam, where he warned, “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore.” He has also done damage at major summits with allies in Europe. Others argue that the president’s personal views don’t matter, but that observers should pay attention to policy outcomes. There is some merit to these views, but they will provide little reassurance to U.S. allies and partners worried about U.S. disengagement.

The problem now is that no one — not even Vice President Mike Pence — can reassure U.S. friends (and competitors) that Trump intends to maintain U.S. commitments in the Indo-Pacific. Even the best speeches and the wisest policies will simply be seen as incongruent with the president’s approach. Such was the case at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue when the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove asked Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to “give us cause for optimism” because “President Trump appears to be an unbeliever.” At the time, Mattis paraphrased Winston Churchill, saying, “Bear with us. Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.” One wonders how much longer Asian friends will wait.

Administration officials have done their best to argue that they represent the president, but Trump continues to undermine them. Last week, just days after Mattis promised that there were “no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises,” Trump tweeted “there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games.” This is not only bad policy — the exercises are crucial to the allied deterrence capability yet the last one would have cost only $14 million — but it also undercut the secretary of defense, which will make his role as “secretary of reassurance” even more difficult.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing trade policies that contradict the administration’s own “free and open” principles. He has used national security as an excuse to put in place damaging measures, like auto tariffs targeting close military allies and trade partners. This will directly harm America’s most important relationships in Asia and elsewhere. How long can administration officials push a “free and open Indo-Pacific” while the president continues to favor disengagement and protectionism?

U.S. Strategy in Asia: A Free and Open Question

The administration’s Asia-focused officials deserve credit. An anonymous senior U.S. official recently wrote, “Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” For 18 months, administration officials have tried to get Asia policy right. During this time, they have held two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retained the ability to function, which F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “the test of a first-rate intelligence.”

But this situation simply cannot continue. The president’s disagreements with his own officials cannot be papered over. He is, after all, the elected leader of the United States and his (almost always) decisions bind U.S. policymakers. From his “trust” in Kim Jong Un to his “friendship” with Xi Jinping to his conviction that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” the president’s beliefs are driving U.S. policy. And Trump appears increasingly determined to shed administration officials who do not share his views.

The implications for U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific are finally becoming clear. Pompeo’s vision of an America that “is deeply engaged in the region’s economic, political, cultural, and security affairs” is a good one. It is a shame that the president doesn’t appear to share it.


Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he studies Asian security. He previously worked at the Pentagon, White House, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is writing a book on strategic competitions during power shifts.

Image: State Department