Yesterday in a piece for Lifezette.com, I argued that President Trump should ignore the advice he seems to be getting from his more establishmentarian advisers, and from conventional thinkers outside his administration, and focus on economics and not security when he meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow.
Today, I’d like to spell out some of the assumptions about America’s priorities in the East Asia-Pacific (EAP) region that lead to these conclusions – and why genuinely bringing America’s grand strategy in the region into the twenty-first century is essential to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to nuclear attack and to strengthening its economy.
First, as I’ve long maintained, since the Cold War has been over for nearly three decades, the geopolitical basis for the current American approach to the EAP has simply disappeared. Until 1990, Washington provided a nuclear umbrella for the region and set up alliances for two main reasons. First, the United States was determined to keep Asia’s vast economic power and potential out of communist hands. Second, America resolved to prevent Japan from needing to conduct an independent foreign policy – which U.S. leaders believed would lead to its rearmament and likely reversion to 1930s- and ’40s-style militarism.
Since 1990, America’s goals have remained essentially the same, but one of the rationales shifted. Preventing Japanese rearmament was still (secretly) treated as an imperative. But with the Soviet threat gone and China increasingly integrated into the world economy, the United States began justifying its continued military presence as essential for buttressing the stability needed to keep the region’s economically dynamic countries functioning as major cogs of an increasingly close-knit global trade and investment system. Also reinforcing regional stability would be the continuing protection of South Korea from its bellicose northern neighbor.
The most dangerous problem with this approach is that, although it arguably made sense from the U.S. standpoint when America’s main actual and potential rivals in the region either had no nuclear weapons (North Korea), or vastly inferior and relatively primitive nuclear forces (China), it has become ever more suicidal more recently. For whereas once Washington could credibly brandish a nuclear threat to keep powerful enemy conventional forces at bay while incurring almost no risk of nuclear retaliation against the American homeland, the Chinese and even North Korean have now made major progress towards fielding nuclear weapons both capable of reaching American shores and of surviving U.S. nuclear attacks. As a result, they can now place American cities in mortal danger.
To modify a common Cold War-era saying, Washington has promised to sacrifice Los Angeles in order to save Seoul and/or Tokyo. Has anyone explained to the American people why this potential tradeoff is remotely acceptable – or even sane? Quite the contrary. A literally suicidal strategy keeps getting dressed up in terms that sound either comfortingly technical and abstract (like “extended deterrence”) or even warm and fuzzy (like “coupling”).
Indeed, the latter phrase, upon examination, reveals what has now become by far the least forgivable aspect of American strategy given current nuclear circumstances: The “coupling” of America’s security to its allies’ security was designed to force the United States to risk nuclear attack to protect Japan and South Korea. This aim was accomplished mainly by stationing major American forces right along the North-South Korea border – the Demilitarized Zone – to ensure that they would die during a North Korean invasion and thereby give an American president no real choice but to respond with nukes. The presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Japanese bases and on patrol through regional waters serves the same purpose. That is, the United States surrendered one of the paramount goals of genuine national security since the Atomic Age began – the power to choose whether to involve itself in a nuclear war, or to avoid one. And Washington stubbornly clings to this strategy even though the nuclear landscape has been decisively transformed.
Two related developments make Washington’s acceptance of this risk even less acceptable. First, America’s Asian allies have become more than capable of defending themselves from their enemies. Yet even South Korea, with a possibly deranged dictatorship for a neighbor, has understandably decided to rely on American blood and treasure for its security, and skimped on its military spending. And although Japan has increased its own defense budget and capabilities significantly in recent years, its far greater economic power still justifies the label “free rider.”
Second, precisely because current nuclear circumstances make the American defense guarantee so literally non-credible despite the coupling strategy, the likelihood of Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons for their own defense rises with each new North Korean missile test and each new Chinese thrust into the South or East China Seas. In other words, if that train hasn’t already left the station, its engines are firing up.
There is, however, an immense silver lining that the supremely unconventional President Trump – unlike many of his advisers – should be quick to recognize: Because the Cold War threats are gone, and because the whole of the EAP relies so heavily on net exports – especially to the United States – for its growth, America no longer needs to worry about a foreign power controlling the region politically.
This development is of course most relevant to America’s China strategy. It means that even if Beijing established unquestioned hegemony in its backyard, China and all of its supposed new vassals would still desperately need to access the U.S. market. The flip side of this proposition is just as crucial: America’s paramount interests in the EAP are economic – ensuring adequate access to Asian markets, and safeguarding American domestic businesses and their employees from predatory Asian trade practices. Further, the best way to achieve these goals is by wielding economic, not military, power.
A U.S. China and Asia policy reflecting these trends – and other generally ignored regional realities that increasingly have been staring obtuse establishment analysts in the face – would make for a dramatically different agenda for this week’s China summit than has apparently been laid out. For example, President Trump has indicated that he will press China’s Xi harder to use his leverage on North Korea to curb or even end the latter’s nuclear weapons program, threaten to attack the North militarily if China doesn’t step up, but ease up on trade pressure if Beijing goes with the American Korea program.
Far better would be for Mr. Trump to recognize that this position raises the prospect of accepting continued Chinese trade predation as long as China even holds out the prospect of providing a North Korea assist; that even if North Korea’s nuclear weapons can’t hit American territory yet, a war with its regime could terribly bloody America’s conventional forces in the Pacific along with allied civilian populations; and that whatever nuclear threat to the United States faces from the North stems not from any intrinsic desire to attack America, but from continued U.S. military involvement in a decades-long Korean civil war that has only been suspended since 1953.
Modernized American priorities would enable the president eventually to tell his Chinese counterpart that the United States is greatly lowering its military profile in Korea, and that however China decides to deal with its dangerously predictable neighbor will be fine with Washington. But since both the Chinese and especially American allies would need time to prepare for this transition, and since a premature announcement would only embolden North Korea, Mr. Trump should simply downplay the subject at the summit, convey these messages privately as soon as Xi leaves, and let the transition begin before going public. A similar approach should be taken toward territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.
Having freed himself to focus on trade and other economic issues, the President should tack away from the conventional wisdom in this sphere, too. Specifically, he should acknowledge that the main lesson of long years of U.S. China trade diplomacy is that there’s no longer any point in negotiating trade agreement with Beijing. The Chinese record of breaking their promises is too long, and even an administration determined to monitor and enforce trade deals would face a formidable challenge in keeping track of conditions in China’s gargantuan industrial complex.
Instead, Mr. Trump should keep the discussion general and thank Mr. Xi for coming such a long way. Then once all the photo-op moments are finished, and he’s departed, the administration should develop a list of Chinese goods that represent especially egregious examples of trade predation (either in the Chinese market or the U.S. market, and impose unilateral tariffs on them. The president should specify that the list will keep growing until he receives reliable information that the Chinese have not only dropped trade barriers, but have compiled a serious track record of keeping them low – which will of course take several years to demonstrate. He should make clear that his own administration will be judge, jury, and court of appeals for any Chinese claims of compliance. And he should then let Mr. Xi know that he’s looking forward to their next meeting – and would of course be happy to come to Beijing.