Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution commends President Trump for his pivot to Asia. He says it’s “shaping up to be more substantive and potentially transformative than the one the Obama Administration regularly touted.”
That’s a low bar. However, there is, indeed, much to like about Trump’s pivot. As Auslin says:
Trump. . .has begun by blowing up past practice, specifically in no longer pretending China is a fair trading partner, in finally responding to cyber espionage, and in at least attempting to put more military pressure on Beijing by increasing naval freedom of navigation operations and aerial overflights near new Chinese military bases in the South China Sea. All in all, Trump’s approach is the first since the normalization of relations in 1979 to rattle the Chinese and put them on the back foot.
Auslin sees potential problems, though:
There are also risks to Trump’s approach, including his belief that he can make a deal with Kim Jong-un, possibly at the cost of keeping U.S. troops in South Korea, and also in rushing into an agreement with Beijing to end the trade war that doesn’t seriously address China’s unfair trade practices. Failure to make real progress on either North Korea’s nuclear program or China’s increasingly aggressive behavior would seriously, perhaps fatally undermine the U.S. position in Asia.
These concerns are mostly hypothetical. However, Auslin identifies one concrete decision by Trump that has already caused problems — Trump’s trade policy:
Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a mistake, especially as it allowed Chinese president Xi Jinping to position Beijing as the champion of free trade and made his Belt and Road Initiative seem more attractive to countries looking for aid and trade. Moreover, a revised TPP went into effect at the end of last year, with Japan at the head of a smaller group of trading nations, but one that potentially can grow.
Trump’s pivot to Asia won’t work if America is not seen as a willing trade partner.
Auslin acknowledges that Trump has talked about pursuing bilateral trade deals. But so far, the president has little to show for this talk.
I agree with Auslin that “the trade leg of Trump’s pivot will prove as important as the security and political legs.” Trump needs to step up his game if he wants to make his pivot to Asia a success.