Fear of instability in Northeast Asia mounts as US intentions in the region remain unclear.
To depict President Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the functional equivalent of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would be an exaggeration, but because trade is the primary instrument of regional integration in Northeast Asia, its implications are more worrisome than those of Brexit. While Europe has cultivated a system of shared values and made conscious efforts to overcome historical animosities and reduce the risks of war by building interlocking institutions and fostering a “European” identity, Northeast Asia has eschewed integrating mechanisms and the dilution of national identities. What integration has been achieved is the result of market-based economic decisions and American engagement. Trump’s rejection of TPP and repudiation of Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia undercuts both pillars of regional stability and prosperity.
Trump’s actions would be cause for concern under any circumstances, but they are especially worrisome because the region is more unsettled than it has been for several decades. North Korea is adding to its nuclear arsenal. China’s economy is slowing but Beijing’s military buildup and use of economic and political leverage to pressure its neighbors have intensified. South Korea’s president has been impeached and imprisoned; her approach to North Korea and “Comfort Women” agreement to reduce tensions with Japan might be repudiated after the upcoming special election. Japan’s modest adjustments to military policy in response to threats from North Korea and Chinese pressure over disputed islands have unsettled domestic constituencies and enraged Chinese and Korean politicians.
Trump’s actions would be cause for concern under any circumstances, but they are especially worrisome because the region is more unsettled than it has been for several decades.
The fact that these developments are occurring simultaneously compounds the difficulty of resolving them or mitigating their impact on regional stability. For decades, the default expectation in the region was that Washington would intervene to defuse tensions and sustain prosperity. That expectation has been eroding for many years; indeed, Obama’s “rebalance” was intended to reassure the region that the United States understood the magnitude of its own stake in the region and retained both the ability and the will to preserve regional stability and prosperity while pursuing American interests. Despite that effort, many Asians remained skeptical about Washington’s commitment to the region and ability to manage tensions and rivalry in the US-China relationship. President Trump’s actions and assertions have transformed skepticism into conviction that the United States has become unreliable and unpredictable.
Confusion and uncertainty about US intentions has increased fear that events could spin out of control because of American disengagement or, worse, that Washington will act in ways that destabilize the region. Some worry that decades of tacit reliance on the will and wisdom of Washington have degraded the ability of regional political leaders to manage the increasingly complex concatenation of internal and external challenges confronting them. Such worries are not unfounded, but they may be overstated. The collection of studies in my recently published book on regional dynamics in Northeast Asia, Uneasy Partnerships, provides reasons for both optimism and pessimism. The contributors, who are from China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States, examined the perceptions, priorities, and policies of China and its regional partners. Their assessments acknowledge the importance of geography and history as unifying and divisive factors, but lessons learned from past encounters generally are judged to be less important than the context and dynamics of current interactions. Concerns about internal stability, economic growth, and the constraints of public opinion loom larger than do positive and negative lessons from the past.
Leaders and key constituencies in each country recognize their interdependence and the importance of finding peaceful and practical ways to resolve differences but experience gained through centuries of interaction does not ensure successful management of contemporary challenges. A, if not the key to stability and prosperity in the decades since 1945, has been the extent and character of US engagement. That engagement can no longer be taken for granted. How well and how quickly regional players will adjust to the new situation remains to be seen, but the findings of my edited volume and what we know thus far about Trump administration policies indicate that there are more reasons for concern than for complacency.