The Trump administration has made significant, if not wholly sufficient, strides to bolster the factor of deterrence that eight years of President Obama’s dangerous doctrine has badly eroded, and Vice President Mike Pence’s Asian tour has been largely a step in the right direction.
Vice President Pence’s trip to East Asia continues the positive momentum on developing strategic clarity the Trump administration has already generated. The vice president diffused a brewing controversy with our democratic ally in Australia, pledging that the U.S. would abide by a refugee deal Obama negotiated to grant 1,250 refugees asylum. Pence reassured the Japanese during his visit that the U.S. considers North Korea “an urgent and most dangerous threat” to peace. He vowed that the U.S. would collaborate closely with our democratic allies in the region “to bring economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime.”
Credit the president for having a steep learning curve.
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It will require, however, an abundance of patience, prudence and perseverance to clean up the strategic mess President Trump inherited.
Trump has already pledged to rebuild the American military to restore the generous margin of preponderance necessary to raise the barriers to aggression in vital geopolitical regions. Our democratic allies should welcome Trump’s decisive response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s murderous client in Syria — the welcome antithesis of Obama’s craven capitulation when Assad crossed the his red line using chemical weapons in Syria. In contrast to President Obama, Trump now understands that Iran looms as our most dangerous foe in the Middle East.
Credit the president for having a steep learning curve. President Trump has discovered the virtues of sustaining America’s global system of democratic allies that has contributed mightily to keeping the peace since World War II. He has extolled the importance of NATO and our alliances with Japan and South Korea after questioning the value of the relationships on the campaign trail. The administration has reassured our Asian democratic allies, backing South Korea unequivocally in the escalating confrontation with North Korea, and taking no option off the table if North Korea presses for expanded nuclear delivery capabilities. Trump’s decision to send three U.S. aircraft carriers toward the Korean peninsula has injected a huge dose of credibility to his predecessor’s hollow Asia pivot — long on rhetoric and woefully short of the hard power to underwrite it.
But challenges remain for the Trump administration to surmount in order to fully gain control of developments in the region.
For one thing, the Trump administration has yet to figure out an effective substitute for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Japanese consider Trump’s rejection of the TPP a significant blow. Vice President Pence did not convince the Japanese otherwise during his trip. Tokyo remains unenthusiastic about a bilateral deal with the United States that President Trump advocates as an alternative to TPP. In order to contain China’s influence in the region, the Trump administration must devise a plausible path forward to strengthen ties between economic partners.
Trump must also avoid falling for Chinese niceties overlaying serious strategic threats.
Trump’s inordinate cordiality towards Xi Jinping during their recent summit sends the wrong signal globally about American strategic clarity and priorities. Contrary to the impressions of some within the administration, China enables its North Korean ally, using the rogue regime to foment fear and strife among America’s democratic allies in East Asia. An increasingly aggressive, illiberal, expansionist China strives implacably for hegemony rather than legitimacy as the world’s major power center for the 21st century. China’s ambitions rightly terrify America’s democratic Asian allies, with some of our former enemies such as Vietnam also clamoring for greater American vigilance.
The Trump administration still takes insufficient account of ideology and regime, needed to distinguish among friends, foes, threats, and opportunities in the Middle East as well as East Asia. Recently President Trump offered, for example, ill-advised congratulations to an increasingly Islamist, tyrannical, anti-American, and anti-Semitic Turkish tyrant Tayyip Erdogan for “winning” a referendum increasing his arbitrary authority, which is inimical to freedom and American interests. In 2013, Preident Obama gushed that Erdogan was his favorite leader.
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Nor can one fathom why Trump administration again slighted a decent, democratic and increasingly consequential India — excluding it from Vice President Pence’s itinerary for his trip to Asia. No country shares a deeper and broader set of convergent interests with the U.S. than the free market, pro-American government of India under Prime Minister Nahendras Modi. India, Japan, and South Korea constitute the core of a U.S.-led democratic alliance system, essential to containing China and ultimately pressuring the regime to reform rather than expand at their neighbors’ expense. The U.S. and India also share a compelling interest in defeating radical Islam, which is also existentially menacing to the decent democratic Indian regime.
A Pence visit to India would have demonstrated the Trump administration’s determination to reinvigorate President George W. Bush’s prescient initiative to facilitate India’s rise as a great power. India beckons as a far more reliable ally and trade partner for the U.S. than a nasty, repressive, menacing anti-American Chinese regime routinely stealing American intellectual property and manipulating the terms of trade to our disadvantage.
Despite these caveats, the Trump Administration’s current trajectory warrants cautious optimism. The President has progressed at the rate of two steps forward versus one step backward — a vast improvement over the doomed policies of his predecessor.
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.”