Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Asia in the Trump Era: From Pivot to Peril?

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Asia in the Trump Era: From Pivot to Peril?

Article excerpt

The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia BY KURT CAMPBELL. Twelve, 2016, 432 pp.

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 BY MICHAEL J. GREEN. Columbia University Press, 2017, 760 pp.

The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region BY MICHAEL R. AUSLIN. Yale University Press, 2017, 304 pp.

Donald Trump ran for office promising to overturn U.S. policy toward Asia. He threatened to launch a trade war against China, calling for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports to the United States and promising to label Beijing a currency manipulator. After his election as U.S. president, he broke with four decades of precedent when he spoke to Taiwan’s leader on the phone and declared that the United States might not uphold the “one China” policy- the foundation of U.S.-Chinese ties- under which the United States does not formally recognize the Taiwanese government. On his first full weekday in office, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (tpp), the 12-nation, U.S.-led trade deal that many in the American foreign policy establishment saw as crucial to preserving U.S. influence in the region.

Since then, however, Trump has appeared to adopt a more traditional posture. He recognized the “one China” policy in February during his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His secretary of defense, James Mattis, traveled to Japan and South Korea to reassure leaders in both places that the United States remains a committed ally, despite Trump’s comments on the campaign trail that the United States could save money if those countries developed their own nuclear weapons. Soon thereafter, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort, in Florida, where he assured him that the U.S.-Japanese relationship “runs very, very deep.”

In short, it remains too early to tell what the Trump administration’s overall strategy toward Asia will be. Although written before the presidential election, two new books offer some sound advice. The Pivot, by Kurt Campbell, who served in Barack Obama’s administration, and By More Than Providence, by Michael Green, who worked for President George W. Bush, are essential guides to understanding U.S. policy in Asia. They reflect a bipartisan consensus among American scholar-practitioners that U.S. leadership remains irreplaceable for ensuring the region’s future peace and prosperity-a consensus that the Trump administration would do well to heed. A third new book, meanwhile, The End of the Asian Century, by Michael Auslin, charts some of the dangers that lie ahead if the region fails to manage its many risks.


In January, in front of a packed audience at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Xi delivered a strong defense of globalization. He signaled that China was prepared to lead the liberal international order if the United States was not. But Xi’s speech was as much a tacit admission of nervousness about the erosion of that order as it was a declaration of confidence in China’s power: Xi offered no real alternative to the international system that the United States has built over the past seven decades.

In reality, China cannot lead the current global order. The leader of an open system must itself be open, and the Chinese Communist Party is concerned that further liberalization may jeopardize its rule. Growth in China has slowed, labor and social unrest are widespread, and Xi’s anticorruption campaign has unsettled party cadres. External confidence masks internal insecurity. U.S. leadership in Asia remains indispensable.

No one is more aware of this reality than Campbell, one of the United States’ most distinguished diplomats, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009 to 2013 and was one of the chief architects of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the policy for which his book is named. …

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