The US pivot to Asia: Death by Trump

Peter Lee November 13, 2016 4:34 AM (UTC+8)
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Donald Trump probably won’t try to kill the pivot, but he’s killing it anyway.  So why not speed up and control the process?

My previous piece, Hillary is Gone; Will the Pivot Live On? proposes that Trump could extract the United States from two pivot-spawned cul-de-sacs in Asia, the faltering UNCLOS gambit in the South China Sea and the North Korea denuclearization dead end.

But I’m not optimistic.  Trump appears pretty unprepared to take on the myriad responsibilities of governing the United States let alone running the world, and I expect for Asia policy he will just “let ‘er drift” as they say in the trucking biz and let the well-organized and deeply-embedded pivot lobby run China during his administration.

Pivoteers are already mobilizing, albeit somewhat belatedly and frantically.

Ralph Cossa, of Pacific Forum, begins his hot take with the disarming remark, “Like most American Asia-watchers, I have no clue what the basic tenants of the incoming Trump administration’s Asia policy will be.”

The rest of it appears to be standard-issue pivoteering, including pleas for Trump to stay the course on the SCS, North Korea denuclearization, & TPP.

But even if Trump lets pivoteers run the show, Trump may have doomed the pivot just by getting elected and awakened our Asian partners to the risks associated with signing on to a U.S.-led security regime that, unsurprisingly, is at the mercy of the vagaries of U.S. leadership and its evolving priorities for Asia.

An interesting element that should be on everybody’s radar is the increasing likelihood that Japan and South Korea will develop their own nuclear weapons capabilities in Asia in response both to regional threats and their own perception that Asia can and should be master of its own security fate in a context of US relative decline and uncertain/ding-batty US leadership outlook.

Cossa alludes to this in his piece:

The going-in assumption is that a Trump administration does not discourage – perhaps even encourages – allies like Japan and Korea to go nuclear. Again, if he truly believes the world is a safer place and US interests are best served by having more nuclear weapons states in Asia, he needs to say so. What he SHOULD say is that America’s commitment to nonproliferation remains strong and our security umbrella – nuclear and conventional – over our friends and allies remains firm. The US military is not a mercenary force available to the highest bidder; it is a partner in assuring peace and stability with those who share America’s values and long-term security objectives.

The biggest conundrum for the United States is that nuclear weapons capability implies a de facto independent security policy for Japan in particular.  And if Japan (recently unleashed as a regional military power thanks to pivoteers’ single-minded and, in my opinion, simple minded support for revision of the pacifist constitution) is setting its own security agenda in Asia, what’s the role of those enormous US bases in Japan/Okinawa?

As Japan muscles up and especially if it openly or quasi-openly goes nuclear (a preoccupation of pivoteers appears to be poo-pooing Japan’s nuclear weapons ambitions, but I wouldn’t take that to the bank, friends), then the US presence in Japan does look like a bunch of mercs squatting on their bases without a clear integrated US-Japan mission.

Clearly, the intention isn’t to have them on tap simply as an adjunct to Japanese power protection. But if they aren’t tightly integrated with Japanese security policy, how much should Japan pay for them and in effect subsidize a military force that does less to ensure Japanese security and more to challenge Japanese sovereignty and its nascent hegemonic aspirations?

And if Trump demands Japan “pay more” (Japan already pays 75% of the local base operating costs, about $4 billion), Japan might start asking “For what? If Japan launches a decapitating strike on North Korean nuclear facilities, is Uncle Sam going to have my back?”

Perhaps pivoteers have already worked up budgets and penciled in entire buildings on their think tank campuses just to handle the US-Japan security conundrum and, indeed, see the knottiness of the problem as a welcome source for sinecures up to 2050.  (“Here’s our 500-step plan for managing a nuclear confrontation with North Korea up to and through a joint military expedition.  It replaces the 475-step plan and irons out some more of the kinks…”).

But as regional security capabilities develop, I think it will become clear to local actors, especially Japan and South Korea, that the objective of the pivot is not so much regional security as it is erecting a regional security architecture whose primary objective is to secure US “leadership,” perhaps a polite term for “hegemony.”

And with the election of Donald Trump showing that American solicitude for Asian priorities might turn out to be, shall we say, casual, conditional, and perhaps applied with a meat-axe depending on who’s in power, Asia’s desire to control its own security destiny will increase.

As I suggest in my previous article, Trump might try to get ahead of this curve by sidelining the pivot—or, more ambitiously, accelerating and thereby managing its inevitable demise—by cutting a deal with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that takes China-containment out of the Philippine-US relationship, and by cutting another deal with North Korea that allows America to cut into the line in front of China and Japan in reaping the strategic and economic benefits of rapprochement.

Interesting possibilities.  But I doubt the pivoteers will let Trump explore them.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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