Published February 20, 2020
Copyright 2020 by Focus on the Global South



There is a widespread perception, especially among East and Southeast Asian elites, that the US is in a process of disengagement from the Asia-Pacific under President Donald Trump.* This study contradicts that notion. It locates the main driver of the US presence in the region in the projection of power of the US state or its strategic extension. This force, the study contends, is far more powerful and lasting than the promotion or maintenance of diffuse economic or corporate interests.

Along with the perception of strategic disengagement is the idea that Washington is abandoning multilateral approaches to ensuring its interests and those of its allies. The study disputes the premise of this assertion and shows that unilateralism has been the dominant manner in which the US has asserted its military and political interests in the region, and that this unilateral approach continues today.

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has created the impression that the US is ceasing to pursue its economic interests and those of its allies via multilateral means. Again, the study shows that the traditional pattern through which the US has managed economic relations with its allies has been, as on the strategic front, via unilateral action. Economic unilateralism has successively targeted Japan, then the “Asian Tigers,” then China. Washington’s aim in these campaigns has not only been to address the US trade deficit with these countries but to dismantle the “Asian developmental model” marked by strong state intervention, though this objective has been most pronounced and most comprehensively pursued in relation to China.

It is also pointed out that even as Trump targets China, he is also hitting the other Asia-Pacific economies since these have become suppliers of raw materials and industrial components to China that the latter puts together and exports to third-country markets. Moreover, he has imposed trade sanctions on Vietnam and Thailand, forced Korea to renegotiate its trade agreement with the United States, and entered into an unbalanced trade agreement with Japan. Even as Trump takes on China, he is busy micromanaging the trade policies of the US’s Asia-Pacific allies.

Even before Trump, the Pentagon already identified China as the main strategic competitor of the US. The “near peer” competitor designation of Beijing is not, however, supported by military strength indicators, on which China is far behind the United States. China’s basic military posture, as even the Pentagon admits, is one of “strategic defense.” It has focused on creating defensive installations (A2/AD) to protect its eastern and southeastern seaboard from attack and nullify the US’s power projection capabilities from the first, second, and third island chains of the Western Pacific. In response, the Pentagon has devised the strategy of AirSea Battle designed to penetrate and destroy China’s (A2/AD) defenses.

This already alarming competition for military edge in the Asia-Pacific has become even more so under Trump owing to three developments from the US side: the deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile defense system, THAAD, that the Chinese think is aimed not only at North Korea but at China as well; the withdrawal of the US from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and its announcement that it will deploy intermediate nuclear missiles in the Asia-Pacific; and the adoption by the Pentagon of the doctrine of “Overmatch,” which requires the US to maintain massive military superiority over any rival or coalition of rivals. This combination of factors translates into a destabilizing balance of power competition in the Asia-Pacific, in which a mere ship collision can escalate to a conventional conflict and from there to a nuclear war.

It is this intensification of US power projection capabilities by the Trump administration, not an illusory US disengagement, that constitutes the greatest danger to the Asia-Pacific today.

* The geographical scope of this paper is East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific. “Asia-Pacific” is often used as a term for this region; the paper adopts this usage. The paper does not cover the relationships of the United States with South Asia, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East. Occasionally, when the word “Asia” or “Asian” is used, it is used to refer to the region under study.