How Trump scores over Obama in the Asia-Pacific

Amid the chaos of his presidency, the current incumbent's defence policy vis-a-vis the region has been clear, concise and consistent

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
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As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads back to the US after his meetings in Tokyo with ministers from the emerging "Quad" group – America, Australia, India and Japan – he may appear to be an emissary returning to an administration in chaos. But part the clouds of Trumpian turmoil and Mr Pompeo's trip represents a truth that may be a surprise to some: that President Donald Trump's Asia-Pacific policy has scored at least one solid and under-sung success.

Wait, I hear some say. Didn't Mr Trump unleash a fully fledged trade war with China, a country he later demonised as being responsible for what he called the "kung flu" that has currently laid him low? Of course, just as it is true that for much of his presidency, important ambassadorships – including to the 10-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) – remained unfulfilled; and whereas President Barack Obama almost always attended the annual East Asia Summit – a key event in the regional security calendar – Mr Trump has yet to turn up, sending his National Security Adviser, Robert O'Brien, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last year in what was widely viewed as a snub.

He withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade agreement that was expected to bring the other 11 members closer into America's orbit, in one of the first acts of his presidency. Mr Trump castigated treaty allies Japan and South Korea for not paying enough for having US troops stationed in their countries, and alarmed much of the world with his erratic negotiations with and alternating bursts of anger and affection towards North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrive to attend their meeting in Tokyo, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations' foreign ministers meeting. (Charly Triballeau/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrive to attend their Quad meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday. AP Photo

It is also the case that many countries in the region do not wish to be forced to take sides in a new cold war between the US and China. That is almost exactly what some American officials have been trying to do, including Mr Pompeo, who last month urged Asean states to stand up to "the Chinese Communist Party" and their "state-owned" bullies. Given all the above, it would be fair to ask: if that constitutes success, what on earth would failure look like?

But there is something that outweighs all of the brouhaha and nervousness brought on by Mr Trump's disconcerting outbursts. And that is, whether they say so openly or not, nearly all the countries in the region are pleased to see the US take a much stronger stance with China and are reassured by a firmer commitment to American military presence, with Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and so on. As a story on US alliances under Mr Trump in the current edition of The Diplomat magazine puts it, his administration's "willingness to explicitly accept friction with Beijing in the pursuit of US interests has been welcomed by those… with a more hawkish view of China".

Mr Obama may have initiated the "pivot to Asia", but there was always a worry about how concrete the "rebalance" was, especially in security terms. As "YA", an anonymous official of the Japanese government, wrote in The American Interest magazine earlier this year: "While President Obama was talking about possible co-operation with China on global issues in a bid to make a responsible stakeholder out of a rival, Beijing was busy sending military ships to the Senkakus, muscling the Philippines out of Scarborough Shoal, and creating artificial islands in the South China Sea."

China's rapid development and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea has alarmed the West and its neighbours. EPA
China's rapid development and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea has alarmed the West and its neighbours. EPA

That is a strong opinion, and couched in language China would no doubt disagree with. But it is not only "hawks" that take a similar view. There are other countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that will always be very careful to maintain friendly relations with Beijing and can be counted on not to offer criticism in public, whoever is in government.

Behind the scenes, however, there are persistent concerns that in the possible scenarios of China insisting on what it regards as its rights they would find it hard to resist. Plenty are very happy for someone else to speak out on their behalf. After Mr Pompeo came out with some particularly flame-throwing remarks in May, one Malaysian analyst acknowledged how undiplomatic they were, but added that it was "useful to have a Secretary of State like Pompeo – especially when dealing with China".

To give another example of how the Trump White House has set a different course: when I and others had a meeting with a senior State Department official during the Obama administration, I asked what the US red line was in the South China Sea – where exclusive economic zones and islands, reefs and banks are heatedly and sometimes dangerously disputed by China and several Asean states. “There isn’t one,” came the answer.

By contrast, when I and my former colleagues at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia met David Stilwell shortly after he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs last year, he projected calm confidence and determination. A former Air Force general who knows the region very well, questions about Mr Trump’s persiflage didn’t trouble him. They simply didn’t matter. It was all about the policy and on that he was clear and steadfast. This is key to understanding why the Trump administration can count its Asia-Pacific policy in the “positives” column.

For with the best will in the world, and taking China's promises of "win-win co-operation" and a "peaceful rise" at face value, countries in the region are still uneasy. They do, as "YA" argued, seek "continued US commitment and presence". And what they see beyond the President's headline-making tweets is that officials like Mr Pompeo and Mr Stilwell – and former secretary of defence James Mattis – are deadly serious when they say they will provide that, precisely because they are not idealists who think they can remake China in a liberal western image. That alone makes the Trump administration more credible in the Asia-Pacific than that of Mr Obama.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National