Ever since President Trump kept his campaign promise and nixed U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, America’s chattering classes have been charging that his decision has opened the door wide to China to expand its influence in East Asia at America’s expense, and shunted the United States to the sidelines of the regional and international economy. Mr. Trump’s just completed visit to Asia has revived all these accusations – and not so coincidentally, afforded yet another opportunity to demonstrate just how ludicrous they are.
Most embarrassingly, if the president’s approach to “this vital region,” in the words of Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, even has much potential to leave “the United States more isolated and in retreat, handing leadership of the newly christened “Indo-Pacific” to China on a silver platter,” no one seems to have told Asia’s leading powers. For they have been hard at work helping Washington develop a new grouping that’s obviously aimed at frustrating Beijing’s ambitions.
So even as Rice and the rest of the foreign policy establishment were bemoaning the United States’ supposedly declining influence in the first year of the Trump presidency, representatives of Japan, Australia, and India were meeting with American counterparts in the Philippines, site of the latest series of regional summits, to breathe life into longstanding plans to foster greater cooperation among their four democracies.
And if you don’t think that the effort is amply capable of worrying the Chinese, don’t take my word for it. Take China’s. Just as the meeting was concluding, Beijing was out with a statement warning that no joint ventures among regional countries should target or damage a “third party’s interest.”
Just as interesting: Plans for such a “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” were first advanced by Japan in 2007. But Australia and India weren’t especially interested – the former for fear of antagonizing the Chinese. Apparently nothing that Washington did during the ensuing Obama years changed their minds. Now, however, they’re at the table.
At least two overlapping developments appear to be responsible. First and most unmistakably, America’s pushback against China under Obama on both the national security and economic fronts was so feeble and ineffective that the PRC’s power grew tremendously. So the Australians and Indians no doubt now view the need to contain China more seriously. Second, it’s entirely possible that President Trump’s indications that the United States will no longer assume the bulk of the burden and risk of maintaining Asian security while getting shafted continuously by Asian trade policies has convinced those two countries in particular that they’d better get into a proactive mode.
And maybe most interesting of all, the Trump decision to exit TPP (whose signatories included Australia and Japan) apparently did nothing to discourage Canberra, New Delhi, or Tokyo from teaming up with the United States.
The main reason could not be more obvious (except to the American establishment): Keeping America engaged however possible is the only alternative conceivable for the time being to greater Chinese control. And herein lies a crucial lesson that Mr. Trump may have grasped but that his establishment critics have unmistakably ignored: The United States is not a superpower because of what it does on the world stage. It’s a superpower because of what it is.
That is, the source of American strength is not how many alliances it joins or trade treaties it signs or international regimes it creates – or even how many conflicts it enters. Instead, the source is strength itself – in all of its interlocking forms: military, economic, and technological.
So as long as the United States maintains this strength – which of course can be and has been greatly undercut by the kind of Asian mercantilism winked at by American presidents for decades but protested loudly by President Trump – it will remain a player wherever it wishes. But nothing is likelier to limit America’s global reach – and threaten its interests – than the apparent establishment belief that international activism per se can somehow substitute for power.
Not that I’m a supporter of what may be an emerging American strategy here. For as I’ve written, the nation’s essential interests in East Asia are economic – creating satisfactory terms of trade and commerce. And as long as the United States serves as an irreplaceable final market for Asia’s export-heavy economies (that is, as long as it remains soundly and sustainably wealthy), it will be able to lever that power to achieve its goals whoever runs Asia politically.
And as I’ve also written, East Asia’s major powers (e.g., Australia, Japan, and India) should be strong enough, especially together, to resist China’s designs on their own. Further, to give them an extra edge, the United States can always sell them advanced weapons, and if need be drop its insistence that they forswear (in the case of Australia, Japan, and South Korea) nuclear weapons.
But if Mr. Trump is going to double down on the United States’ traditional strategy of Asia’s stabilizer and defender, his apparent understanding – expressed most often during the campaign – that America’s economic ties with the region will need to change dramatically provides the only hope of enduring success.