from Asia Unbound

Looking Ahead in Asia, With Our Allies

November 30, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The United States will face a variety of challenges ahead in the Asia-Pacific. It will need diplomatic supporters, economic partners, and military allies. Japan and our Asian allies are all of these, and more.

Today’s Asia is complex, but tomorrow’s Asia will be fraught if the United States fails to look ahead. It will be vital for the Trump administration to consider the longer game, aiming for a vision of Asia that in the end serves U.S. interests.

Already it seems, the president-elect and his advisors have stepped back from some of the more radical statements of the campaign, and Trump’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggests that there will be common ground for thinking about the U.S.-Japan alliance going forward. Future conversations with other Asian partners will undoubtedly produce a similar outcome.

Yet as the new administration prepares to manage U.S. interests in Asia, let me offer a few suggestions.

Look Carefully at Alliance Equities

Alliance equities have long been part and parcel of U.S. policy. The formula has remained fairly consistent since Senator Mike Mansfield led the Congressional discussion on “burden-sharing” in the 1960s: allies need to spend more on their defenses so that the United States can spend less. Since the 1980s, because of its constitutional constraints, Japan has increased its spending on U.S. forces stationed in Japan, and today spends more than any other ally on the forward deployment of U.S. military in Asia. In today’s Asia, Tokyo is far more likely to want to up its own military spending and enhance its own military self-reliance to improve alliance efficacy.

But the U.S.-Japan relationship has far greater value to U.S. interests, and the incoming Trump administration will want to have Tokyo’s help for a variety of Asia’s challenges. A provocative North Korea sits high on that list. So too will be any recalibrating of our military relationship with China, especially in Asia’s waters where the U.S. and Japanese navies work in close cooperation.

Beyond Bilateralizing…

Part of the new administration’s challenge will be to develop their vision of Asia, a strategic vision that looks beyond the economic correctives that the president-elect included in his list of what a Trump administration will do in its first hundred days. This longer term strategy for Asia will take time, and will benefit from close dialogue with our Asian partners, first and foremost Japan.

To get the maximum value from our alliances with Japan and others in Asia, I recommend the following. Perhaps most important, think carefully before bilateralizing all of our relationships, and especially our Asian alliances. While bilateral channels undoubtedly offer the most direct route to negotiating U.S. interests, our relationships in Asia are also part of a larger web that is less like billiard balls and more like electrical networks. A disconnect in one very quickly spreads to another, and before long the system of carefully nurtured and calibrated U.S. partnerships will be weakened. Our partners—Japan, Australia, South Korea, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states—work more directly with each other today than ever, and it is in U.S. interests that they do so.

Our Influence as a Composite

A Trump administration should also think carefully about creating disconnects in our alliances while creating tensions with China. This matters in two ways. First, U.S. leadership, especially in Asia, is a fusion of economic and military power, a composite that cannot be disentangled. One cannot operate in the absence of the other. The Trans-Pacific Partnership demonstrated a U.S. interest in creating the economic playing field of the future, and remains the best (bipartisan) idea the United States has had in Asia. If the Trump administration wants to abandon it, it will need to think of an alternative way to embed the American economy over time in a thriving Asia. The Asia-Pacific is the center of the global economy, and withdrawing from it is simply not an option. But equally important, taking a backseat in the region’s economy will influence our ability to generate strategic cooperation going forward.

Alliances Are Strategic Assets, Not Liabilities

Perhaps most important for that long-game view of U.S. interests in Asia, the Trump administration should recognize that our alliances are perhaps our best strategic asset in Asia. U.S. military spending has gone up and down since the end of World War II; we fought the two hot wars of the Cold War there in Korea and Vietnam. Yet military might alone will not be enough. We will need all of our assets—economic, diplomatic, and military—if we are to play in the Asia of the future. While it is tempting to view our allies as liabilities, in fact they are the foundation of our success in Asia. This is true today, and will be in the difficult decades ahead. We should continue to revamp our cooperation to meet the strategic demands of Asia’s changing geopolitics, but it is wise to remember that the last time the United States ceded Asia to an ambitious rising power, we went to war.

Read more about how the Trump administration should approach U.S. policy toward China (here and here), Korea, and South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

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