By Edward Wong
For two and a half years, US President Donald Trump has said he is finally doing in Asia what he asserts his predecessor, Barack Obama, failed to achieve with a strategic pivot: strengthen American influence and rally partners to push back against China.
But as violence escalates and old animosities are rekindled across Asia, Washington has chosen inaction, and governments are ignoring the Trump administration’s mild admonitions and calls for calm. The inability or unwillingness of Washington to help defuse the flashpoints is one of the clearest signs yet of the erosion of American power and global influence under Trump, who has stuck to his “America First” idea of disengagement, analysts say.
“Without the steady centripetal force of American diplomacy, disorder in Asia is spinning in all sorts of dangerous directions,” said William J. Burns, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The net result is not only increased risk of regional turbulence, but also long-term corrosion of American influence.”
All U.S. administrations have limited ability to steer events abroad. Foreign governments often ignore requests from the United States. And the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse and Russia as an anti-Western force means factors outside the Trump administration are contributing to the weakening of U.S. power. But critics say Trump’s policies — more focused on cutting American expenses abroad than on building partnerships — have sped that erosion and emboldened governments to ignore entreaties from Washington.
South Korea announced Monday that it was dropping Japan from a list of preferred trading partners, ramping up a conflict that jeopardizes Washington’s most important alliances in Asia. Trump’s top foreign policy officials had advised both nations to settle their differences, to no avail. Meanwhile, North Korea, the biggest security threat in East Asia, has done five recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles or rocket systems — with no chastisement from Trump.
And Chinese officials said this week that Hong Kong protesters were starting to show the first signs of “terrorism” — an indication that the Communist Party in Beijing could order tougher measures to end the unrest, even after the Hong Kong police fired tear gas at crowds during the 10th weekend of protests.
Official Chinese news organizations are linking the Trump administration to the protests and labeled a U.S. diplomat, Julie Eadeh, who met with student leaders, a “black hand.” Tweeting on Tuesday that the Chinese were moving troops to the border with Hong Kong, Trump issued no warnings other than: “Everyone should be calm and safe!”
“The inability to manage the issues shows some real weakness in the president’s actual commitment to the strategy or any forward diplomatic engagement in Asia,” said Michael J. Green, a senior Asia director for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Green, now a professor at Georgetown University, added that while the Trump administration was carrying out some useful strategies or tactics in Asia, “it is striking how ineffective the administration is on this Japan-Korea issue.”
Though Trump has embraced a hands-off approach since he took office, some officials, including Matthew Pottinger, the senior Asia director on the National Security Council, have worked to formulate a big-picture strategy on Asia, with the aim of bolstering competition with China. They have pledged to spend money on regional programs as part of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, increased the rate of freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and started a campaign to try to persuade nations to ban the use of communications technology from Huawei, the Chinese company.
But critics say Trump weakens the U.S. position through continual acts of self-sabotage, including abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that Obama had forged to create a united front against China. Trump also lavishes praise on East Asia’s authoritarian leaders — he said that he and Kim Jong Un of North Korea “fell in love,” and that he and Xi Jinping of China “will always be friends.”
So far, he and his top officials have failed to send any strong signals on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. On Aug. 1, Trump employed the language used by Communist Party officials when he said Hong Kong has had “riots for a long period of time.” “Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that,” he added. “But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”
Analysts said those comments would be interpreted by Chinese officials as a green light to take whatever action necessary to quell the protests.
Trump said in June that the United States and China were “strategic partners,” and that the administration had held back from taking certain actions that would upset Beijing — notably, imposing sanctions on Chinese officials for the mass detentions of Muslims and approving the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. Trump’s main goal with China has been to reach a trade deal to end the costly tariff war, though the two sides have escalated the dispute after failed talks, leading to stock market turmoil.
Trump has also stood back during the intensifying feud between South Korea and Japan. On Friday, Trump said, “South Korea and Japan have to sit down and get along with each other.”
Administration officials say they do not want to be a mediator in the dispute, even though American security interests in the region could suffer — especially if Seoul and Tokyo end an intelligence-sharing agreement supported by Washington that is intended to help with North Korea containment. In late July, John Bolton, the national security adviser, called both sides to ask them to freeze their hostilities, and Pompeo made the same request of their foreign ministers at a summit in Bangkok.
South Korean and Japanese officials are ignoring the Americans. On Monday, Seoul said that not only was it ending a preferential trading partnership with Tokyo, but it was also naming Japan as the first nation on a new list of countries deemed to have bad export practices. Earlier this month, Japan announced that South Korea was no longer a preferred trading partner.
“By failing to act and assume leadership in the region, Trump is allowing nations with long, complicated histories to fall back into traditional rivalries,” said Jean H. Lee, a Korea expert at the Wilson Center. “The more these nations feel the United States is an unreliable partner,” she added, “the more they will feel compelled to defend themselves. I’m already starting to hear growing calls in South Korea for their own nuclear weapons.”