There is a critical difference between being a candidate and being a president-elect. The senior officials of foreign governments know enough about American politics to discount much of what is said during a campaign. That tolerance declines sharply once a candidate is elected as the next president, and declines even more sharply after inauguration day, when every word is now spoken as the head of state.
President-elect Trump’s posturing on China is an all too good example. He has repeated the same vague charges he made against China during the campaign and tied them to his conversation with Taiwan’s leader. At the same time, he has only vaguely addressed U.S. ties to key regional allies like Japan and South Korea. Further, he has done nothing to qualify allied concerns over his remarks on his uncertain support for America’s alliances in Asia and the rest of the world. He has effectively killed the prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and created doubts about America’s future role in trade and foreign investment, without proposing any clear alternative program.
Sending signals that he intends to make major changes in U.S. foreign, security, and economic policy is one thing. Sending signals that undermine existing U.S. policies without providing clear signals about the policies that will replace them is quite another. President-elect Trump cannot continue to react to daily events as if he has no plans for the future—campaign-style criticism is no substitute for policy.
The problem is not simply China—which has become far too important and gained far too much regional influence to simply bully. But China alone is a key problem. It is one thing to propose specific changes in the U.S.-relationship with China and to show that he is actively seeking negotiable changes in China’s behavior and the U.S.-China relationship. It is quite another to simply lay out sweeping criticisms and charges that do not even hint at practical and negotiable changes. Taking an extreme opening position in a real estate deal is one thing, but simply alienating an emerging superpower is another—particularly when the president-elect does so at every key level at once: security and North Korea, economics and trade, and Taiwan in a matter of days.
One also has to wonder who in the Trump transition team is monitoring events in South Korea—considering how much its regime could change and how critical the U.S.-ROK strategic relationship is for pursuing any form of rebalance or stability in Asia. It is one thing to suggest that the United States and South Korea need to reexamine their security relationship, and that South Korea may not only need missile defenses but to create stronger forces, and quite another to leave the relationship in limbo at a point when South Korea is changing governments as part of a major political upheaval and crisis.
The uncertainties in U.S. relations with Japan are less immediate, but the U.S. alliance with Japan is as critical to the U.S. posture in Asia as the U.S.-ROK partnership, and affects far more countries in the region. It is also critical in both cases to at least outline what changes in trade the new president will seek with each state—if any—and focus on what changes in security relations the United States will seek.
One of the many failures of the Obama Administration was that it proposed balancing to Asia based on stronger security partnerships, but never clearly defined what this meant in terms of changes to U.S. forces and what cooperative efforts were needed to change the forces and security postures of allied states. These are areas where the president-elect needs to begin talking immediately to his proposed Secretary of Defense, to the Joint Chiefs, and to Pacific Command.
In the past, the United States has focused far too much on total allied defense spending and burden-sharing as a percentage of GDP, rather than seeking specific force improvement that could produce a stronger level of mutual deterrence and defense. Pushing for security goals that emphasize the burden on an ally, rather than the benefits, hasn’t worked in Europe, and it is the last tactic a new president should rely on in Asia. If a meaningful “deal,” is possible, it will come from showing it is mutually beneficial and negotiated with respect.
The president-elect also needs to focus on the fact that the United States is competing for influence in all of Asia, not simply with its three largest trading partners. This is all too clear from the fact that Australia—a strategic partner that has fought beside the United States—is reported to be concerned enough about the changes in U.S. policy to be reexamining its relationship.
Australia may simply be asking questions at this point, but U.S. success in Asia depends on reassuring and persuading all of its allies—not just Australia, but states like Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, as well as the many other Asian states where the United States actively competes with China for influence. The United States must be ready to “deal” with Asia as whole.
This is not a criticism of the president-elect’s demand for changes in the relationship between the United States and Asian states. There are good reasons to question some aspects of U.S. trade and security policies, and the value of taking a clear and firmer U.S. stand on many issues. The key, however, will be to lay achievable goals, making it clear that U.S. demands are practical and negotiable, and that that the United States treats other countries with suitable respect. The campaign is over, and for all practical purposes, the presidency has begun.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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