Managing Asia’s security threats in the Trump era
It is unclear at this point to what extent (if at all) the Trump administration will attempt to act on these views. Few of them have been explained in any detail, or with reference to the actual strengths and limitations confronting the US in Asia now or in the future. Perhaps most importantly, none of them has included serious discussions of the likely consequences of taking this or that specific action, based on known facts and reliable information.
At the broadest level, the increasingly critical economic importance for the United States of the Asia Pacific region as a market, investment destination and source of capital and technology provides the rationale for a continued strong, active US security presence. The purpose of that presence should be to maximise the conditions for long term, beneficial Asian economic growth; to prevent the emergence of a hostile force that could use Asia’s strengths to threaten the US; to keep open highly beneficial trans-Asian trade, investment and technology routes to other regions; and to support the security and prosperity of regional friends and allies.
These key priorities are made even more important by the fact that East Asia houses the most highly populated, rapidly developing state in the world: China. Given its size, location, growing impact on the region and the world, and in some ways problematic stance toward the three security challenges discussed herein, pragmatic, cooperative US relations with China will almost certainly become increasingly critical to the continued protection of all of Washington’s security interests in Asia. Indeed, the tenor of Washington’s relations with Beijing will largely determine whether Asia remains peaceful and productive or a growing source of tension and rivalry, and hence a drain on resources and a potential trigger of conflict.
The first most pressing and arguably dangerous challenge involves the possible emergence over the next several years of a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of striking US territory, Japan and of course South Korea. Given Pyongyang’s largely insular, aggressive and insecure political leadership and its history of hostility, either a nuclear-armed or an imploding North Korea could pose a major threat of conflict in Northeast Asia. It is imperative for Washington to work with others to either halt or end Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program during the next several years. This requires a clear understanding of the direct and indirect sources, strengths and limits of US influence on Pyongyang’s policies, and on China, South Korea and Japan, both now and in the future.
A second challenge involves the possible future instability of the Taiwan–China relationship. The original normalisation of relations between the United States and China over 30 years ago was founded on an understanding of the political status of the Republic of China on Taiwan Island in relation to mainland China. Given the critical importance of that issue to the stability of US–China relations and hence regional order, it is essential for Washington to manage relations with both Beijing and Taipei in ways that minimise the chances of future confrontations while sustaining mutually beneficial ties on all sides. This requires a clear understanding of the enduring bases for stability and instability in the China–Taiwan–US relationship and the means available to the United States, now and over time, for maximising the former while minimising the latter.
The third most serious potential source of instability and conflict in Asia involves growing differences between the United States and China over the handling of longstanding but arguably worsening regional maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Although largely involving disputes over relatively insignificant land features and nearby waters or routine US naval and air activities, these differences relate to larger questions of international maritime law, the use of military coercion or force, the growing impact of popular (and volatile) nationalism in the countries concerned, the overall balance of power in Asia and the credibility of Washington’s security commitments to its allies. Managing this potentially volatile issue requires a clear understanding of the stakes involved for all sides, the likely foundations of long term stability and the likely resources available to the United States to manage this issue.
Any serious effort to implement the proposals or ideas for dealing with these security challenges confronting the United States in Asia from Donald Trump or his advisers could lead to disastrous consequences. Doubling down on US and allied military capabilities directed against China, the overturning of longstanding and still highly relevant foundational understandings between Beijing and Washington, and bombastic posturing and threats that neglect the interests and views of US regional friends and allies do not constitute viable options for the United States. Such proposals or ideas are based on a serious misunderstanding of both the attitudes, assumptions and interests motivating China, South Korea, Japan and other relevant actors.
Far more effective and less dangerous alternatives to such actions exist that do not simply amount to a continuation of the status quo in every instance. These involve the creation of incentives and leverage designed to elicit support within the United States and among China and other Asian powers for movement toward a stable balance of power in the Western Pacific based on clear understandings of restraint and resolve by all parties. This would require a reversal of the current trend in many Chinese, US and some (not all) allied policy circles toward an ever greater reliance on military and economic might in support of increasingly zero sum calculations. Trends would have to move instead toward a far more realistic acknowledgement of the emerging balance of power in Asia and the need to stabilise, not destabilise, that balance.
Unfortunately, recognition of the above notions appears unlikely to result from counterarguments of the sort presented above, especially under a Trump administration that is dedicated to challenging and overturning most expert opinions on foreign policy issues. Movement toward a more realistic and feasible approach to the three security challenges discussed will most likely occur as a result of a mind-clarifying collision of Trumpian notions with reality, in the form of the actions or reactions of China and other Asian powers, including US allies. Given the possible dire results of such a collision, this could prove to be a very costly lesson.
It is hoped that the new administration will think carefully and consult thoroughly with a wide range of experienced specialists, diplomats, and government practitioners, past and present, before undertaking the radical actions examined above. That said, hope is a very thin reed upon which to rest such high stakes issues.
Michael D. Swaine is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies