By: Ed Kennedy

In 2011, President Barack Obama gave a landmark speech in Canberra  that announced the US would  “pivot” its focus to Asia in a bid to establish an enduring framework for engagement. In doing so the President sought to make a clear declaration that America’s future lay in Asia, and to close the book on a turbulent decade of war across the Middle East in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Along with building tentative security arrangements with Japan and India, he ordered the deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines on a rotating basis in Australia’s northern coastal city of Darwin, and two Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. That was a strong strategic move in the early era of America’s new foreign policy that signified the Obama Administration’s intent.  But notwithstanding that bold declaration of intent, momentum soon stalled, giving rise to growing concerns about the sustainability of the US commitment among regional allies. Then as now, it was recognized that the pivot, also known as a “rebalance,” would take considerable time and resources.  

Given the volatile tinderbox nature of geopolitics in Asia, many contingencies were planned for. None of them anticipated the election of a President Donald Trump.

The shift in personality from Obama, as America’s first African-American president – who had spent time during his formative years growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia – to Trump couldn’t be greater. Obama was measured, meticulous and consensus-driven in global affairs. Trump is instinctual and brash, with isolationist tendencies. Their personalities differ greatly, but what about Trump’s approach to Asia as Obama’s successor?

Any assessment of the Obama era in Asia must begin with an acknowledgement of its distractions. Obama’s first term saw him elected by a nation keen to scale back involvement in the Middle East after a decade of frustrating and discouraging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, two conflicts that saw a clear victory grow increasingly elusive, and continued to sap American prestige and influence in the region, and around the world.  It also saw growing anxiety about Beijing’s ambitions for China as a military power among regional allies.

It was not anticipated that there would be a need to turn back to old hotspots so quickly. Yet, less than a year after Obama’s speech in Australia, any aspiration to limit involvement in Syria’s war began to face heavy criticism.

Daesh dashes Asia focus

The rise of Daesh, also known as ISIS, and its territorial acquisitions in neighboring Iraq confirmed that the Obama administration’s second term would be dominated by the Middle East once more. Russian airstrikes in Syria, followed by invasion and annexation of Ukraine in 2014, delivered Washington geopolitical challenges more reminiscent of the Cold War than a new era of focus on Asia.

Just as Russia’s Ukrainian episode was an opportunistic calculation by Moscow of America’s reluctance to act in Kiev’s defense, so too did Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea benefit immensely from strategic timing. Justifying their creation based upon the Nine-Dash Line campaign began in 2013.  Beijing’s construction of a series of artificial islands surrounding the disputed Subi Reef, had been completed by late 2015 while the US dithered.

That episode unfolded alongside Beijing’s growing tensions with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and within broader territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. That Kim Jong Un in North Korea launched more missiles in 2014 (17) alone than his father Kim Jong-il did across his whole lifetime (16) affirmed the new landscape.

It’s said a week is a long time in politics. Five years is surely ample time for stark change. The growth of instability in Asia was substantial. The one certainty many observers of the pivot held was that the expected election of Hillary Clinton would see a steady hand for US defense interests in Asia. As opposed to continuation of Washington’s Asia policy, Trump’s election promised more change.

Trump and the Art of an Asia Deal

At present Trump’s record in Asia is a mixed bag. Nobody would suggest this is by design, as much as by chance. Ultimately Trump’s greatest liability is his greatest asset: showing a readiness to go beyond the conventional approach to diplomacy and foreign policy. Prominent examples of his efforts in Asia illustrate this. 

Trump killed America’s participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was held to be the economic wing of the pivot, in keeping with the new president’s longtime suspicion of free trade deals, and underwritten by the promise his administration would bring about a new era of trade prosperity for the US. Great movement either way here remains to occur. Yet, America’s TPP exit has certainly paved the way for even greater economic influence by Beijing in Asia.

Trump has also undoubtedly escalated tensions with North Korea. This notwithstanding, while China has long been reticent to lambast Pyongyang, pressure from Washington seemed to inform Beijing’s backing of stronger UN sanctions on the rogue state. It may not have been achieved by a masterful diplomat, but achieving action here is a win for US foreign policy in the Trump era.

Trump has done the US no favors by creating needless tension with longstanding regional allies like Australia. Conversely, his acceptance of a congratulatory call from Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, risked Beijing’s ire, but also won him praise for being “brilliant” and representing a “new start” in relations. Thereafter, Trump ultimately affirmed the One-China policy stated in the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 as agreed to by President Richard M. Nixon, but like George W Bush’s Taiwan comments early in his presidency that the US would defend Taiwan with ”whatever it took,” the phone call was a departure from a departure from business as usual.

The U.S has also continued naval exercises in opposition to Beijing’s construction in the South China Sea, with neither Washington or Beijing showing a particular ambition to change the status quo for now.  This notwithstanding, it is clear Trump’s style will face substantial challenges due to the political dynamic inside China. Trump’s foreign policy may be patchwork and inconsistent, but it’s with China’s President Xi a clear contrast is seen.

Trump’s opposition

Xi Jinping represents a clear break from the worldview of predecessor President Hu Jintao. Hu, chiefly content to focus on China’s domestic growth and economic power, was seemingly amenable to not test pressure points like Taiwanese sovereignty, provided the US did the same.

Xi is cut from a different cloth. HIs heralded corruption crackdown is often cited as a avenue for eradicating political rivals. Far greater censorship of the Internet and a stern response to Hong Kong’s local elections protests signifies a stronger rule domestically. His comments regarding Taiwan that “these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation” is also identified as his readiness to break with convention.

Expectations he will be China’s third paramount leader, a status enjoyed only by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping previously, have followed the CCP’s 19th Party Conference. Xi being named and written into China’s constitution at the same conference also signifies his power. This domestic authority‚ alongside Xi’s stated aspiration for an “Asia for Asians,”  and Beijing’s efforts in the South China Sea, signifies that in both soft and hard power, Xi sees no future for US leadership in Asia.

A core consideration is how regional allies respond to the Trump administration’s approach. Many nations have shown a capacity to accommodate Trump’s idiosyncrasies, but past performance is no guarantee of future behavior. A dramatic or unexpected development could have a strong knock-on effect, and see old relationships tested by this new style of president.

The personality of a president alone is highly unlikely to end a global conflict or see a war start. Beyond the back and forth of political headlines is the nuance of diplomacy. There is also the power of force, which no nation will aspire to deploy simply because an insult is hurled from one capital to another. 

Nonetheless, in an era of personality politics, Obama and Trump’s presidencies each show shortcomings in tandem to prior presidents. Barack Obama was publicly dynamic but reserved in practice. Many recent presidents before him were different. Ronald Reagan famed for his ‘jellybean diplomacy,’ Bill Clinton for his personal charisma, even George W Bush for his friendly, folksy nature.  

Obama more often acquired a reputation for being standoffish and at a distance.  It is held this proved costly not only advancing his domestic agenda, but also in Asia.  Accordingly, Obama will always share responsibility for this era, notwithstanding issues that emerged beyond Asia during his second term.

Now with President Trump beginning an Asia tour this week, it remains to be seen whether a Trump Doctrine will emerge here, or hereafter. The world does not yet know what such a policy could look like, and evidence so far suggests Trump may not either.

What is clear is the region remains ready to hear Washington’s voice, but longstanding allies will no longer be guaranteed to wait for it, as they look to grow their own defenses against Pyongyang’s ongoing provocations, and Beijing’s growing ambitions.

Ed Kennedy is an Australia-based journalist. A graduate of Monash University, he wrote his honors thesis on Obama’s pivot to asia. He can be found on Twitter at @Edkennedy01.