If the past year is any indication of the year ahead, US policy in Asia will be erratic and self-serving.
The beginnings of an Indo-Pacific strategy notwithstanding, the Trump administration continues to work out its issues with countries in the region bilaterally and sporadically.
The Trump administration’s trade confrontation with China is yet to produce a negotiated solution. The challenge is structural and no amount of Chinese promises to ‘buy American’ will fix the underlying problems.
The challenge posed by Chinese companies is felt far beyond the US government. The Department of Justice’s enforcement of US law on companies accused of commercial espionage and cyber theft is only strengthening.
Beyond the high-profile detention in Canada and pending extradition of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, numerous indictments of Chinese companies are being pursued.
Without real change in Beijing’s enforcement of intellectual property theft, simply shifting the trade balance toward a more favourable direction for the United States will be insufficient to address the economic strain.
Trump’s approach to China is not only about commerce. Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in October last year made that clear.
A wide-ranging critique of China’s behaviour in the United States and efforts to expand its influence abroad, the speech was welcomed by some in Asia as evidence that the United States is ready to stand up to China.
Not yet, but the United States and China are clearly on a deeply contentious path.
It is an open question whether Washington is up to the challenge of engaging in sustained, strategic competition with Beijing and whether it can maintain the like-minded regional coalition that will be necessary.
A second challenge for Washington is realising the promise of threat reduction claimed by Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore. The President is fond of declaring his administration’s diplomacy with Kim a success, but his own intelligence agencies disagree that Kim is prepared to denuclearise.
Over the past year, to be sure, there were no missile or nuclear tests. Yet there was also no progress in getting Pyongyang to catalogue its nuclear and missile facilities nor to open its production sites for international inspection.
The on-again, off-again diplomacy to set up a second summit suggested a major setback. But Trump and Kim will now meet in Vietnam on 27–28 February.
Perhaps the most pervasive problem for US foreign policymakers is not the behaviour of other global actors, in Asia or elsewhere.
Crippling divisions within the Trump administration itself, and between the administration and the legislative and judicial branches of the US government, could make any attempt to marshal US resources into foreign relations almost impossible.
From the government shutdown, to the Mueller investigation and its criminal indictments, to the increased scrutiny of Congress on the administration, it will be a year of domestic entanglement for the President and his White House.
The challenge is structural and no amount of Chinese promises to ‘buy American’ will fix the underlying problems. The challenge posed by Chinese companies is felt far beyond the US government.
The Department of Justice’s enforcement of US law on companies accused of commercial espionage and cyber theft is only strengthening. Beyond the high-profile detention in Canada and pending extradition of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, numerous indictments of Chinese companies are being pursued.
Author: Sheila A Smith, CFR
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