The Asia-Pacific region is of exponentially increasing importance to the United States.
Developments there affect vital U.S. economic, security, and political interests. Unfettered access
to the region is a strategic imperative to allow the United States to protect and advance its
wide-ranging national interests.
The Donald Trump administration, in the face of a rapidly evolving strategic environment,
will need to develop policies to sustain the U.S. presence and safeguard American interests in
the Asia-Pacific region.
Defining trends in the Asia-Pacific region include:
- Rapid economic growth that has increased the region’s weight in world affairs and importance
to U.S. interests. Asia-Pacific economies make up more than one-quarter of the
global economy and account for about one-third of all U.S. trade.
- Rising Chinese economic and military power that has reshaped global and regional
trade and investment patterns and challenged U.S. regional dominance. Countries in the
region value their economic ties with China and do not want to be forced to make a strategic
choice between Washington and Beijing.
- Increasing U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic engagement with the region since
the end of the Cold War.
Although countries in the Asia-Pacific region are primarily focused on economic development,
a number of security challenges could threaten regional stability and damage U.S. interests.
- Sino-Japanese rivalry and conflicting claims over maritime boundaries in the East China
Sea and over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands
- North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities, which challenge nonproliferation
norms, threaten U.S. regional allies, and will eventually include the ability to strike
the U.S. homeland with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
- China’s desire to resolve the Chinese civil war by achieving unification with Taiwan,
and Beijing’s increasing efforts to develop the military capabilities and economic leverage
necessary to coerce Taipei into accepting a political relationship with the mainland.
- Increasing tensions over conflicting maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea,
with all claimants engaging in a range of tactics to strengthen their positions and China
making greater use of its military and paramilitary forces to try to expand its effective
control of disputed waters.
We advocate a regional strategy focused on working with U.S. allies, partners, and multilateral
organizations to build a rules-based regional order that includes China and advances
U.S. economic, security, and political interests.
- A rules-based regional order will help the United States to maintain economic, security,
and political access to the Asia-Pacific region and advance its interests in the face of
regional trends and security challenges.
- This approach requires sustaining the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region and intensifying
cooperation with other regional allies and partners to shape China’s choices
and make it pay a price for aggressive actions that violate international rules and norms.
- If the United States is not actively engaged in shaping the regional economic order, that
order is likely to evolve in ways that do not reflect U.S. interests.
The starting point for a strategic approach to the Asia-Pacific region is to reinforce existing
bilateral alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, the Philippines, and
Thailand to deal with specific security threats. The alliances also provide a good foundation for
expanding regional security cooperation. The United States should:
- encourage increased cooperation among U.S. allies
- develop strategic partnerships with key states in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia,
Singapore, and Vietnam
- support trilateral and quadrilateral cooperation mechanisms with Australia, Japan, India,
and South Korea
- shape the evolution of regional norms through active U.S. participation in regional organizations
and dialogue mechanisms.
If the United States emphasizes its alliances, expands security cooperation with other partners,
and actively engages in regional multilateral institutions and dialogues, it will be able to
deal with China from a position of strength.
The mixture of cooperation and competition in the U.S.-China relationship will present
the new administration with a defining challenge given China’s increasing ability to affect the
broad range of U.S. global, regional, and domestic interests. The policy challenge will be to
maximize cooperation while competing successfully in areas where U.S. and Chinese interests
- President Trump will need to engage directly with his Chinese counterpart to keep both
governments focused on a cooperative agenda and to manage the more competitive aspects
of the relationship. Domestic economic and political problems are likely to produce
more restrained Chinese external behavior and give U.S. policymakers more leverage.
- China does not aspire to challenge the United States for global leadership. In most regions,
its focus on maintaining stability and securing access to resources and markets is
relatively compatible with U.S. interests.
- U.S. and Chinese interests are less aligned in the Asia-Pacific, where China seeks increased
influence and increasingly views the United States as a constraint. Heightened
U.S.-China strategic competition and the potential for military incidents or crises makes
it imperative to improve bilateral communications and crisis management mechanisms.
- U.S. policymakers should resist Beijing’s efforts to create a U.S.-China condominium
or “G-2”-like arrangement, which would require accepting Chinese territorial claims (including
to Taiwan) at the expense of U.S. allies and partners.
The United States will have to deal with the rapidly evolving nuclear and missile threat
posed by North Korea, the most destabilizing element in the Asia-Pacific security environment.
- Military options are unattractive given the vulnerability of U.S. allies to attack by North
Korean long-range artillery and missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
- North Korea has no interest in trading its nuclear program for economic assistance; it
seeks recognition as a nuclear weapons state.
- Given North Korea’s history of cheating, a negotiated freeze on nuclear and missile testing
that does not include intrusive verification measures is unlikely to permanently constrain
the North Korean ICBM program and would likely require concessions that would
reduce U.S. ability to deter and defend its allies against a North Korean attack.
- Given the bad options, the most effective policy may be to strengthen deterrence and
defense of the ROK and Japan, maintain the external pressure of economic sanctions, and
keep the door open to dialogue and diplomacy, aimed at the denuclearization of North
Korea as agreed to by Pyongyang in the September 2005 Six Party statement.
- To deal with the possibility of instability or regime collapse, the Trump administration
should work to closely coordinate U.S. and ROK objectives, endstates, and policy
responses and try to engage China in discussions of responses to various contingencies.
Over the next 4 years, the United States will be challenged to maintain its leadership of a
rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region. Sustained U.S. involvement and close coordination
with regional allies and partners will allow the Trump administration not only to meet the challenges
in the Asia-Pacific region, but also to grasp the opportunities.
- U.S. diplomacy must play a leading role in strengthening our alliances, partnerships,
and regional institutions that widely share the U.S. commitment to a rules-based order as
the foundation of regional peace and stability.
- Consistent engagement with the region by the highest levels of U.S. leadership will be
critical for success.
- Allies, partners, and potential challengers will judge the regular presence of the President,
Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense in the region as a key indicator of U.S.
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