Aaron Friedberg, the former deputy assistant for national security affairs of the US Vice President, wrote an article cited more than 800 times in International Security in 1993, in which he predicted that Asia was ripe for rivalry. His argued that military conflicts in Asia were unavoidable after the Cold War because, unlike European countries, Asian countries lack or have shaky pillars supporting peace — democracy, international institutions, and economic independence in the era of multipolarity. However, he might have cast this pessimistic prediction too early and for the wrong reasons. Asia is ripe for rivalry after Donald J. Trump became US President-elect in November 2016, and the root of the ensuing conflict is the uncertainty of US commitment toward its Asian allies.
Many have claimed uncertainty is what Asia will face in the era of Trump but less have clearly answered why uncertainty is dangerous for Asia and how. The simple answer to these two questions is “a security dilemma.” A security dilemma is essentially a situation in which two countries are competing militarily with each other because both are stimulated by each other’s defensive preparations. Country A is not sure about the intention of country B, so A decides to further militarily protect itself by purchasing more weapons or deploying more forces. However, country B perceives the behavior of country A as offensive in nature so B responds with the same logic. Although there are multiple communication channels between the two countries, the uncertainty of the intentions only amplifies doubt and fear toward each other. A security dilemma usually ends with an eruption of military conflict between the two countries, and this may be the situation Asian countries will be led to during a Trump presidency.
US commitment toward its Asian allies has undoubtedly been the critical pillar holding the fragile peace in Asia together over the past six decades, but Trump is taking this pillar away. During his presidential campaign, Trump proposed to change a number of the US’ long-held arrangements in Asia, such as US military forces in Asia, the US-Japan security treaty, and the non-proliferation regime. Although what he said during the campaign may just be rhetoric to rally support, those claims have already eaten away at US allies’ faith in US commitment. The evidence for this is that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe all held emergency meetings after the election result came out, and they were all eager to reach out to Trump to ascertain his attitude toward Asia.
Once this pillar is taken away, a security dilemma in Asia could happen in two different directions. The first is via US allies in Asia, like Japan. US commitment to Japan, which is materialized in the US-Japan security treaty, has been the key factor mitigating the security dilemma between China and Japan after the Cold War. Given that Trump threatened to walk away from the treaty more than one time, it is reasonable that Japan starts to prepare for the worst-case scenario to counter the Chinese military presence over the air space of Senkaku/Diaoyu Island. The possible following steps Japan would take include its further militarization, the strengthening of its military cooperation with Taiwan or India, or even its development of nuclear weapons (which Trump has encouraged). This is happening on Japan’s internet discussions. China would most certainly interpret every step Japan takes as hostile.
We may have to face a situation in which it is the individual level which owns the most powerful agency to affect the behavior between states.
The uncertainty of US commitment toward its Asian allies could also encourage China and North Korea to test the waters. It is highly possible that China and North Korea could try to gauge the strength, range, and priority of the US commitment in the first one or two years of the Trump administration. China, for example, may re-start building islands in the South China Sea to see whether the US’ position is still as tough as it was. Kim Jong-un could also conduct another nuclear test to gain a chance to negotiate with Trump in person (which Trump has claimed he would love to do so). To make matters worse, given that Trump seems to be willing to manage US commitment toward its allies in transactional business terms; for example, China may agree to put more pressure on North Korea in exchange for sovereignty over Taiwan or taking islands belonging to Taiwan. This transactional model would create further uncertainty among US allies in Asia as the US could trade away their interests. Once such pessimistic predictions enter into the minds of the leaders of the US’ Asian allies, the result would be increased military self-protection, which leads to a security dilemma.
Some have argued that Trump would rely heavily on his advisors since he is not familiar with foreign policy. However, the real question is whether Trump is a good listener. If he is, to what extent will he listen to his advisors? It is true that the US Constitution and bureaucratic systems could constrain Trump from radically altering US foreign policy in Asia overnight, but it is also true that the US president’s personal decision matters significantly in response to emergent events. Take the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996 for example. Bill Clinton largely followed Warren Christopher’s, Anthony Lake’s, and William Perry’s suggestions to handle China’s coming military action towards Taiwan. The result of the crisis would arguably have been very different if Trump was president at the time.
The huge transformation Trump is going to bring to the world is more than geopolitics. After so many decades of focusing on the structural effect of the international system in mainstream International Relations scholarship, we may have to face a situation in which it is the individual level which owns the most powerful agency to affect the behavior between states. Therefore, it is going to be quite a while that the first sentence that scholars will put down on paper is not “since the end of the Cold War” but “since Trump won the 2016 US presidential election.”