America first: US Asia policy under President Trump

16 Mar 2017

Executive summary and recommendations

The Trump administration looks to be adopting a more muscular and self-interested security policy in the Asia-Pacific.

  • Confrontational on China: Trump and his advisers have outlined a hard line towards China on most bilateral issues, and view Beijing as an aggressive strategic competitor that needs to be deterred with US strength
  • Supportive but transactional on allies: the administration will uphold Asian security guarantees at the same time as more strictly scrutinising the US interests at stake. The United States will seek greater burden-sharing and “wins” from allies, including initiatives to create new US jobs.
  • A military-first rebalance: the administration will advance the security elements of President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” while attaching little importance to engagement with Southeast Asia or the rebalance’s original liberal internationalist goals.

Changes in US Asia policy will likely produce more volatile relations with competitors, and potentially between Washington and its allies and partners.

  • Instability in US-China relations: Trump’s abrasive policies, particularly on Taiwan, are likely to deepen friction with China and increase the risk of mixed signals and communication breakdowns.
  • Disunity and fragility in the US alliance network: Trump’s “America first” approach to Asia is at odds with the policy preferences and public opinions of most regional allies, creating potential constraints on coordination between Washington and its Asian alliance network.
  • Divergence between Australia and Japan: Japan’s anxiety about being abandoned by the United States may see it rush to embrace Trump’s Asia policy, while Australia’s concern about being entrapped in potential US military endeavours could see it keep some distance from Washington. This may produce opposing dynamics that could weaken bilateral ties and trilateral cooperation.

Australia needs to adopt a more active regional security policy to weather these destabilising shifts. It should:

  • Assist the United States in articulating policy priorities on China.
  • Actively work to reduce possible misperceptions between the United States and China.
  • Work multilaterally with Asian allies and partners to communicate shared interests, opportunities, and redlines to President Trump’s cabinet.
  • Coordinate US alliance management strategies with Japan.
  • Build greater resilience into the US Asian alliance network by establishing new trilateral partnerships with Southeast Asia, starting with an Australia-Indonesia-Japan grouping.
  • Assume a more active leadership role in Southeast Asia by independently contributing to a stable and liberal regional order.
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