Stanford scholars are encouraging the new administration to consider steps to alleviate the uncertainty and anxiety felt by countries in East Asia about U.S. intentions toward the region.
President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric during his campaign and his recent withdrawal of the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership have contributed to the unease in the region, which is drifting in ways that are unfavorable for American interests, they said.
Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) recently published a 27-page report with recommendations on topics of trade and defense that would improve relations between the U.S. and Asian countries. The report, co-authored by eight Stanford scholars, is aimed to help shape U.S. policies in the region.
“The advent of any new administration provides an opportunity to reassess policy approaches,” wrote Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein center. “A new mandate exists, and it is our hope that that mandate will be used wisely by the new administration.”
Trade and defense
The biggest trade concern for experts in the region is President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his intention to focus on bilateral agreements instead of multinational pacts.
The agreement, which bound 12 countries in the region by a set of international trade and investment rules, had problems, Stanford scholars said. For example, some have criticized the treaty for not requiring full compliance with international labor standards for all the participating countries. Also, the rules of origin, which were supposed to give preferential treatment to countries in the TPP, were deemed to be weak by many, allowing goods produced outside the TPP to receive benefits.
But it would not be wise or efficient for the U.S. to start negotiations from scratch in the region because the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, which was touted as a model for the 21st century, already has hurt its credibility with other Asian countries, said Takeo Hoshi, director of the Japan Program at the Shorenstein Center. In addition, Asian countries view the idea of bilateral agreements as an attempt to force trade deals on them that disproportionately benefit the U.S., he said.
“The TPP was not perfect and many problems remain, but they are not removed by abandoning the TPP,” Hoshi wrote in the report. “Completely abandoning the TPP could hurt not only the U.S. economy but also erode U.S. leadership in Asia.”
Hoshi said the U.S. should rely on aspects of TPP that are consistent with the current U.S. trade policy when creating new bilateral agreements, while maintaining and improving existing free trade agreements with other Asian countries.
Another immediate concern for scholars is the maintenance of security and stability in the region.
“The region is unsettled because of uncertainty about us,” said Thomas Fingar, a Shorenstein APARC fellow. “The U.S. has long served as the guarantor of prosperity and security in the region but Asians are no longer convinced that we have the will or ability to do so. This has real consequences … It’s not simply because they are already beginning to act as if we intend to play a less active or positive role.”
If China’s national power and economy continue to expand, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain stability in the region if the U.S. does not continue to play a constructive role. Possible dangers include escalation of tensions between China and the U.S. or its allies following accidents or tactical encounters near areas over which China claims sovereignty.
In the report, scholars recommend a comprehensive review of security in the region to make sure military plans are in place that prioritize management of a possible collapse of North Korea or a sudden military strike coming from the country. Other priorities should include peaceful resolution of China-Taiwan differences and ensuring military access in the South China Sea and East China Sea, wrote Karl Eikenberry, director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative at the Shorenstein Center.
“The United States also should engage in a more long-range, exploratory strategic dialogue, first with allies and partners, and then with Beijing, to identify potential areas of mutual interest that can help prevent the unintended escalation of conflicts and reduce already dangerous levels of misperception and mistrust on both sides,” Eikenberry wrote.
China is key
Maintaining a peaceful, productive relationship with China should be of the utmost importance for the U.S., according to the Stanford scholars.
“Managing America’s multifaceted relationship with China is arguably the most consequential foreign policy challenge facing the new administration,” Fingar said.
Although President Trump’s anti-China rhetoric during his campaign made Asian countries anxious about the future, China has been criticized by many American leaders before. Ten previous U.S. presidents were critical of China during their campaigns, but once they assumed office, their tone changed and they adopted a more pragmatic view of U.S. interests in the area, Fingar wrote.
However, while in the past China’s political moves have been predictable for the most part, now that its economy is slowing, the country is increasingly relying on social control and nationalism to reinforce regime legitimacy. This makes China less predictable, according to Fingar.
But the scholars say that there are several opportunities to approach the relationship with China in a way that is beneficial for the U.S. and the rest of the region.
One such opportunity would be for the U.S. to declare its willingness to join China’s newly created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was formed in early 2016 to support construction projects in the Asia-Pacific region. This would be an “any outcome we win” opportunity that would showcase the U.S. desire to cooperate with China and help establish the region’s confidence in the U.S., Fingar said.
The new administration should also consider pushing for a quick completion of a Bilateral Investment Treaty with China – something that two previous U.S. administrations were not able to achieve. Creating this agreement would help protect things that are important to the U.S. businesses and reassure the willingness of the U.S. to deepen its relationship with China, according to Fingar.
“In my view, how we’re going to establish or reestablish relations with China is key,” Shin said. “Will there be more tension? That’s really important. This affects not only the U.S., but also our allies in the region.”
Alex Shashkevich is a writer for the Stanford News Service.