Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first trip to Asia comes as apprehension mounts among America’s democratic allies in the region.
North Korea has escalated its nuclear program and ballistic missile tests. An increasingly authoritarian, expansionist, and arrogant China continues to flout international law and the legitimate interests of its maritime neighbors, asserting sovereignty over vast expanses of the South and East China Seas. The combination of President Obama’s precipitous defense cuts and China’s relentless 20-year military buildup has eroded the margin of superiority on which the credibility of America’s East Asian alliance system depends.
President Obama’s pivot to Asia — long on rhetoric but short on capabilities — fooled no one but the administration.
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Secretary of Defense James Mattis somewhat allayed the fears of Japan and South Korea arising from candidate Donald Trump’s disparaging comments on the value of Asian allies during the 2016 election. But doubts remain about whether this administration will reverse the dangerous trends in the regional balance of power the Obama administration accelerated.
No region in the world has greater importance for the United States than Asia — the world’s paramount power center in the 21st century.
No long-term international challenge for the United States looms larger than thwarting China’s quest for hegemony in the region. No power but the United States possesses the capability to ensure that an imbalance of power favors the forces of freedom and prosperity in East Asia. American allies can supplement but not substitute American power in the pursuit of that goal. Consequently, Secretary of State Tillerson should accentuate the following in his trip with stops in Japan, Korea, and China:
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First, Tillerson must reiterate, in no uncertain terms, the Trump administration’s intent to stay the course on its commitment to rebuild the American military — many more naval vessels and aircraft at the cutting edge of technology; more resources for strategic defense, anti-satellite capabilities, and cyberwarfare to counter China’s efforts to deny the American Navy and Air Force access to the Western Pacific; and a more modern and larger nuclear arsenal. No measure the Trump administration could take would yield greater benefit to the U.S. and its allies than restoring a generous margin of American martial preeminence. As strategic analysts Brian McGrath and Seth Cropsey observe, “Creating uncertainty and doubt in the minds of regional governments that the United States can continue to reassure their security is at the heart of China’s desire to see U.S. interests diminished in the region.”
President Obama’s pivot to Asia — long on rhetoric but short on capabilities — fooled no one but the administration as concern continued to soar in Asia that declining American power, credibility, and commitment would pave the way for Beijing to dominate the region. A Reaganesque military buildup will contribute mightily to staunch the erosion of our capability and resolve.
Second, the Trump administration must back its deeds with words. Secretary of State Tillerson should leave no doubt that the United States considers vital the defense of democratic Japan and South Korea from either North Korean missiles or Chinese intimidation. Instead of confining his trip to Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul, Tillerson should extend his itinerary to include a stop in New Dehli. That would convey that the Trump administration recognizes the cardinal importance of courting a decent, democratic India — an unwisely low priority for the Obama administration, which sought to engage rather than deter an increasingly competitive China. India is a potentially powerful as well as philosophically congenial ally for the United States, along with Japan and South Korea. These three Asian democracies constitute the linchpin for any plausible arrangement raising the barriers to Chinese adventurism.
India will soon surpass Japan as the third largest economy. The foreign policy and national security strategy of India’s current prime minister — Narendra Modi — meshes well with the logic of the more muscular American pivot to Asia necessary to reassure America’s allies and vindicate America’s interests in the region at the lowest possible cost and risk.
Modi has criticized China’s expansionist mindset, advocates India taking a more active leadership role to counter it, and strives to take cooperation with Japan to new heights.
Third, Secretary Tillerson should double down on President Donald Trump’s warning that the United States will support free trade, but insist on fair trade. That means an end to China’s pilfering American intellectual property or imposing disadvantageous terms of investment and trade on American business. A stop in New Dehli would underscore that message. In any event, the Trump administration should envisage a freer, more open India a more desirable economic partner than a closed, corrupt, increasingly anti-American Beijing. Nor should Tillerson allow the Chinese to gull the administration — as they have done with President Trump’s predecessors — that the U.S. can obtain Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea. The Chinese will not sacrifice their North Korean client except to extract concessions from the United States that we should be unwilling to pay.
Fourth, although Asian democracies constitute the bulwark of America’s alliance system in East Asia, Secretary Tillerson should declare on his trip that the United States welcomes closer cooperation with authoritarian regimes such as Vietnam. The Trump administration will undermine its credibility — not only in East Asia but in Europe and the Middle East — if it embraces Obama’s fallacy that cooperation with Putin is possible and desirable. Although collaboration of rogue regimes is inherently unstable — akin to a mafia pact — an increasingly authoritarian expansionist China and Russia will collaborate in the short term attempting to subvert the global position of the United States — the chief obstacle to consummating their dangerous and illegitimate agendas.
The tone and substance of Secretary of State Tillerson’s trip will serve as an important preliminary indicator of whether the Trump administration has the strategic clarity and resolve to make America great and safe again.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”
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