President Trump has finally run into an Obama policy he can’t walk away from easily. He can tweak it, criticize it, rename it. And he has done all those things. But as he passes the 500-day mark in office, the president seems stuck with a version of President Obama’s much-touted “pivot to Asia.”
After taking a wrecking ball to almost every other part of his predecessor’s policy legacy across a broad sweep of domestic and foreign policy, Trump—and, more importantly, his advisers—accept Obama’s recognition that the bigger geopolitical challenges for the foreseeable future lie across the Pacific, even if Trump has not laid out a clear strategy for coping with those challenges.
Trump’s emphasis on Asia shows up in his clear disdain for the institutions that anchored the United States in the Atlantic after World War II and the allied leaders in Europe with whom he clashed at the recent G7 summit in Quebec. It shows up as well in his overseas travel.
For decades, it was a given that all U.S. presidents would travel much more to Europe than to Asia. Jimmy Carter went to 11 countries in Europe, only three in Asia; Ronald Reagan, 13 to 4; George H.W. Bush, 17 to 5, including Australia as a Pacific country. For Bill Clinton, it was 33 to 12, and for George W. Bush, 33 to 15. For each president, the time spent in Europe more than doubled the time spent in the Asia-Pacific. But that changed dramatically when Obama announced his “rebalance” or “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Obama became the first president to spend more days in Asia (71) than in Europe (66).
Trump, in relatively little foreign travel, has continued the trend away from Europe. So far, he has visited six countries in Europe and six countries in Asia, spending 13 days each in the competing continents.
To some degree, it is what the architects of Obama’s policy predicted before they left office. “I think anybody who is looking objectively at the world and prioritizing where we’re going to spend our diplomatic resources, our military resources, would determine that the largest emerging region in the world merits our attention,” Obama National Security Council aide Ben Rhodes said in 2016, voicing confidence that the policy would survive Obama. Like many Asia analysts, Rhodes stressed that Asian leaders put great value on a U.S. president “showing up” at regional summits. He said presidents following Obama would have a tough time skipping the summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation groups.
He was right, at least in Trump’s first year. The challenges of a burgeoning and bellicose nuclear power in North Korea and China’s growing economic and military might kept the new president’s gaze fixed across the Pacific. But 18 months into his administration, there has been no sustained effort to comprehensively explain Trump’s approach.
The closest the president got was his November speech at the APEC summit in Vietnam. He promised to use the speech for “sharing our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, a place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side by side, and thrive in freedom and peace.” But beyond placing his own brand on the policy—“free and open Indo-Pacific”—he offered no details for what he called “this new chapter.” Instead, he reverted to his familiar complaining that “we have not been treated fairly” on trade. “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” he groused.
He did not use the speech to explain why, on his first full day in office, he had pulled the United States out the very vehicle designed to eliminate unfair tariffs and right past trade wrongs—the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. That decision was the most serious blow landed by the president on Obama’s policy. Rhodes had called the TPP “the connective tissue and the glue to economic and commercial leadership” in the Asia-Pacific. Michael Green, who was director of Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s NSC, said the withdrawal from TPP and the president’s aversion to alliances risk serious damage to American policy in the region. “One problem with the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy is that it is hard to have a free and open Indo-Pacific without open trade,” he said.
Shihoko Goto of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program said the region is waiting to see the eventual policy beyond the “America first” rhetoric. “Right now, one of the frustrations with this Indo-Pacific strategy is there is a lot of fanfare but not a lot of substance behind it, certainly when it comes to the economic framework,” Goto said. “There is no trade framework … and there isn’t any capital going into it.”
Goto said there is “tremendous concern” among U.S. allies in the region after Trump voluntarily scrapped the annual military training exercise with South Korea. “They fear that what he is trying to tout as improved relations with North Korea is an excuse to be less engaged and less committed,” she said.
Others in the administration have tried to fill the void left by Trump. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in October, first explained the new “Indo-Pacific” nomenclature, calling the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean “the most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century.” And Defense Secretary James Mattis has spoken on the topic several times. Last month, he officially announced that the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) now has a new name: the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).
Green said the only way to understand the current policy is to “separate Donald Trump from his national security team.” He praised what he sees as a more clear-headed approach to China by the Trump team. No one knows, though, if the team speaks for Trump. “I have my doubts,” Green said, “whether he has read either the Indo-Pacific speech or the National Security Strategy. He does not talk in the same terms.”
Green said he believes the Tillerson speech still holds despite his departure. “They are putting meat on the bones,” he said. “It is just not clear if it’s the president’s strategy. And that matters.”