By: Cherui Chew
Amidst fanfare and lavish treatment by Asian leaders, President Trump recently concluded his 12-day Asia trip. This included a stop at Da Nang city for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. The North Korean nuclear threat and U.S. trade deficit were two issue areas that Trump focused on when visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. He announced to the American public that “America is back” after he built a united front against North Korea and negotiated “billions of dollars in trade deals.” In reality, the U.S. has been losing its grip on power in the region due to a lack of a coherent strategy against the North Korean missile threat, and a shift back to protectionist foreign policy.
One of the political priorities of the U.S. in the past few years has been to address North Korea’s increasingly frequent missile launches. Trump, during his visit, rallied for harsher actions to counter North Korea’s belligerence. While the Abe administration of Japan adopted a similar hawkish tone, calling for stronger actions against North Korea, China and South Korea held a different opinion on the issue. Similarly, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries criticize North Korea’s missile launches, but they have always preferred dialogue over harsher economic sanctions.
The U.S. and China hold different views on the correct way to handle the North Korean nuclear threat. China voiced disapproval of President Trump’s threats against North Korea out of domestic and regional security concerns. Chinese leaders believe that provocative action towards Kim’s regime, especially without a coherent strategy, will only prompt more retaliation. North Korea seems unlikely to back down, given that its leadership believes that military aggression is central to regime survival. The instability that ensues will only threaten regional instability and harm China’s trade with regional partners. In addition, U.S.’s military drills in the region are perceived as an attempt to contain China. The deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea was met with Chinese resistance based on the belief that it can be used as a spying tool. Using unofficial economic sanctions that lasted for 16 months, China was able to push South Korea into freezing THAAD deployment.
Trump rallied for a united front against North Korea, but instead, he settled for one-on-one trade deals. A key goal of Trump’s Asia tour agenda was to address the American trade deficit, particularly in manufacturing, which had been emphasized and repeated since his 2016 presidential campaign. The businessman-turned-president went about addressing this goal by proposing arms deals with the host countries. According to Trump, he has successfully secured $250 billion worth of trade deals during his China visit. However, it is far early to claim success because these agreements could be either non-binding or repackaged old agreements. Secretary of State Tillerson offered a candid assessment, stating that current arms deals will not be effective in closing the trade gap as the amount in dollars is dwarfed by the total trade deficit.
While the U.S. turns to economic protectionism, China embraces globalization. Earlier this year, U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) put the U.S. at a geopolitical disadvantage by reducing its ability to write economic rules in the region. American absence in the regional trade pact also opens up an opportunity for China to foster its leadership role via economic integration projects. China has a conflict of interest with its neighbors in territorial claims, but it can strengthen relations by offering economic cooperation. After the APEC Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a state visit with Vietnamese top leaders to advance economic cooperation with Vietnam. A recent attitude survey also finds that in the Philippines, public opinion places trade relations with China before assertiveness on the South China Sea territorial dispute.
From these examples, it is evident that despite Trump’s self-congratulatory claims, the U.S. is experiencing an erosion of its role in the Asia Pacific region. In turn, China has amassed considerable power by offering economic incentives to its regional partners. American action towards conflict escalation and protecting its domestic manufacturing sector is not proof of dominance, but a costly strategic loss.