President Trump And The Indo-Pacific: A Policy Not An Attitude

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It has been fashionable in recent years to claim the Trump administration’s China policy was an “attitude not a policy.”  But this was always a Washington D.C. cocktail party quip more than anything else.

And the recently declassified ‘U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’ – the handiwork of then-National Security Council (NSC), Asia Director, Matthew Pottinger – lays out the administration’s policy towards China – and the rest of the region.

It’s worth reading, to understand the administration’s systematic approach to asserting and defending U.S. interests and principles in the Indo-Pacific.  

Considering that the Trump administration was frequently savaged for its supposed “go-it-alone approach,” the plan reveals much emphasis on aligning U.S. policy and efforts with regional nations’ interests.   

NSC Director, Robert O’Brien’s accompanying letter notes that in 2018 on two occasions U.S. National Security Council, Defense Department and State Department officials met in Hawaii with representatives from across the region to understand their perspectives and common interests and objectives.

Not surprisingly, handling the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the main issue.  But “defense” isn’t the sole focus.  Rather, the strategic framework is a multi-faceted effort that includes economic, strategic influencing, and intelligence and counter-intelligence lines of effort, among others.

Following the document’s release on January 5, 2021, the commentariat has commented as is its wont:

The document is  ‘banal’ and every other administration has said the same thing; 

Chinese assertiveness, not the Trump administration’s efforts, have coalesced a regional response to the PRC;

ASEAN wasn’t taken seriously because it appears on page nine (near the end) and ASEAN is lumped in the same line with the (much less important) Pacific Island Nations.

And while there are some grudging admissions the plan as written just might be acceptable, it is claimed that it ultimately accomplished nothing.

Really?  Perhaps compare 2017 with 2021.

And remember that the Trump administration had less than four years – closer to three in fact – to make its mark on the region.

A few of the highlights:

  • The Quad – a political alignment between Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S. – is now a tangible reality – with impressive cooperative progress on the military front so far.
  • Japan has played a more assertive regional role and the Japan Self Defense force operates throughout the Indo-Pacific more than it ever has.
  • Australia has been a stalwart and is building up its defense and partnerships, and is taking on PRC overreaching and standing up to Chinese economic coercion.
  • U.S. ties with India are better than they have been in decades.  And Indian ties with Australia and Japan are deepening.
  • U.S. relations with the Philippines have improved.  They could hardly have been worse –- after Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 referred to then-President Obama as a ‘son of a whore.’ 
  • The Thais are back on speaking terms with the Americans, recovering from the Obama administration’s gratuitous humiliations and insults following the Thai coup in 2014.
  • U.S.-Vietnam ties are gradually developing, with a U.S. aircraft carrier stopping off in DaNang.
  • Taiwan finally felt like it had a friend in Washington rather than an erstwhile partner who seemed to wish Taiwan would disappear.
  • The Trump administration invited the leaders of the COFA states (Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau, and Republic of the Marshall Islands) to the White House, and serving U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense stopped off for visits in Micronesia and Palau.  And last fall Palau asked the Americans to build military bases in the country.  These were all ‘firsts’.
  • And Washington finally, if belatedly, paid attention to other Pacific Island Nations – offering financial and economic support – and for the first time designating a director for Oceania at the National Security Council.
  • On the trade front, an American administration, at last, did more than complain about Chinese intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices.  Going after Chinese intelligence and influence operations, and the PRC’s Thousand Talents technology theft scheme became a U.S. priority.   
  • Scrutiny of PRC investment in the United States was at long last tightened.
  • Finally, Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang against its Muslim population and elsewhere are getting attention – and sanctioned.  Hong Kong’s freedom is being snuffed out – as the PRC has always planned – but sanctions against key officials have been applied and Hong Kong’s special treatment canceled.  

Other administrations might have just shrugged, furrowed a brow, and carried on with business as usual.  

Is the relationship better today than it was in 2017?

Of course, the Trump administration didn’t get everything done it might have, and it did some things it shouldn’t have done.

For starters, it should have allowed sanctions to shut down ZTE, the Chinese telecom company.  Too often, in fact, the administration seemed to get tough with Chinese entities – and then let the target up “off the mat.”

Also, the Trump administration never throttled Chinese access to U.S. capital markets as it should have.

One should keep in mind, however, that in implementing the Indo-Pacific policy – particularly trade and financial pressure on the PRC – the administration faced fierce opposition from Wall Street and the financial community, and major U.S. companies and business lobbies.

Washington should also have supported South Korea after China applied punishing trade sanctions following the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. 

And when applying tariffs on Chinese goods, it was boneheaded to apply the same tariffs on American allies’ goods as well.  

Demanding the Japanese and South Koreans pay more for U.S. troops stationed in their countries was ill-advised.  It was the wrong fight to pick and an unnecessary distraction.

As for North Korea and the meetings between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un:  the president was in a difficult spot given that an ally, South Korea, was pushing for the meetings.   He should have used some different language during and after the meetings, but that happens.  Managing an ally whose president sees the United States as the reason the Korean peninsula divided, and who is an indifferent democrat, is a challenge.

The Trump administration also took much too long to fill ambassadorships and other regional policy positions.  This handicapped U.S. efforts in the region.

As for criticism that China is still a serious threat as the Trump administration ends, one can hardly blame Mr. Trump that Beijing hasn’t apologized and promised to behave better.  He at least made the PRC leadership more uncomfortable than any of his predecessors in the last 40 years.

At the end of the day, no President or administration to date deserves a perfect score when it comes to Indo-Pacific affairs.  And they’ve all done perplexing things.

But a President and his foreign policy staff are the men and women ‘in the ring’ trying to defend U.S. and partner interests – and indeed, the very notion of consensual government, individual liberty, human rights, and the so-called ‘rules-based order.’ 

It isn’t easy.

Mr. Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off then it was in 2017 – although by no means out of the woods.  The new team hopefully reads the Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework and uses it as a reference.

Regardless, they will be the ones in the ring, and one hopes they succeed.

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