The new 21st Century ‘Great Game’ in East Asia

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Renato Cruz de Castro

Thinking Beyond Politics

Xi Trump

Prior to US President Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, East Asia was on edge, unsure of whether the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region would die a natural death or not. There was anxiety arising from fears that the incoming administration would simply ignore the region since his first official action as president was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It didn’t help that White House national security officials would correct or even contradict President Trump’s statements on the South China Sea and violent extremism in Southeast Asia. The very public exposure of divisions and dissonance within the Trump administration generated confusion and doubt about the credibility of the US as the off-shore strategic balancer and the primary guarantor of security in East Asia.

Such views, however, ignored the gist of American foreign policy in East Asia: on the basis of geography, interests, and values, the US is a Pacific power that needs to play an important role in shaping the future of this region. East Asia remains “a high priority” for President Trump, especially when it comes to regional security issues. In its first year in the White House, the Trump administration found it necessary to maintain a robust American strategic presence in Asia. Recently, the Trump administration released its “2017 National Security Strategy” and the subsequent “2018 National Defense Strategy,” both highlighting the strategic competition between the US versus Russia and China, identifying the resulting great powers’ game as America’s primary national security challenge.

In early 2017, President Trump and key administration officials sent a message affirming US commitment to its Asian allies, especially South Korea and Japan. In April, President Trump invited the leaders of Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines to the White House in an effort to convince them to back US policy on North Korea. The trips to East Asia by Secretary James Mattis and, later, by Vice-President Mike Pence in early 2017 were intended to shore up America’s security ties with two of its most important allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. Both officials also conveyed two key messages — that the US stands firm against North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling and China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, and that despite President Trump’s rhetoric about his America First Policy, this administration will not turn away from American security commitments in Asia.

In May 2017, the US Navy conducted three separate Freedom of Navigation (FON) patrols near Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea. The USS Dewey sailed near the Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef on May 25, and the USS Stethem conducted a FON operation in the Paracels in July. This was followed by two US B-1 Lancer bombers from Guam flying over the South China Sea as a freedom of navigation flight. In August, the USS John S. McCain conducted another FON off Mischief Reef despite demands from a Chinese frigate to leave Chinese waters.

During the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2017, Secretary Jim Mattis reaffirmed that the US is a Pacific Power and that the Asia-Pacific region will be a priority for Washington. “The United States is a Pacific nation in both geography and outlook,” he said.

In fact, a majority of its navy and air force are deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. Six out of the 10 US Navy ships, 55% of the Army, and two-thirds of the US Marine Corps are assigned to the US Pacific Command. Secretary Mattis also issued a veiled warning to China. “We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot, and we will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.”

North Korean nuclear ambition, its missile tests, and an escalating rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington DC also kept North Korea and other Northeast issues on the front burner of US bilateral relations with China. Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missile arsenals pose a direct threat to American security interests as senior US defense officials believe that the rogue state will be able to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting US territories in the Pacific, and possibly, the continental US within a decade. For the Trump administration, North Korea is “a clear and present danger to global peace and stability.”

Along with sustained US military build-up in the region, East Asia thus remains to be a high priority for this administration — for better or for worse. US PACOM Commander Admiral Harry B. Harris said US interests in the region are “enduring.”

The Trump administration’s “National Security Strategy” (NSS) provides the overview of national security threats and the blueprint on how it will address these threats; meanwhile, the unclassified portion of the “National Defense Strategy” outlines the defense department’s strategic goals and capabilities that will be directed to support the NSS’ objectives. Both documents point out that great power competition, not terrorism, has emerged as the central challenge to US security strategy and prosperity. In particular, they warned that two regional powers, China and Russia, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values, and in the process, replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity since the Second World War.

The NSS and the NDS discuss US strategy on a regional basis. The NDS characterized China as a revisionist power whose military modernization agenda seeks “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and the displacement of the US to achieve a global preeminence in the future.” It argues that there is a real possibility that in the near future (likely decades) China may be able to surpass the US and then harness its capital to develop superior military technology that can enable it to overthrow the current international system. The NSS specifically mentions the Indo-Pacific region as an important region where the US must maintain robust and powerful forward-deployed forces, strengthen its alliances, and help build the capabilities of its security partners.

Clearly, the two documents are declarations by the US to confront China in a highly competitive great game in the Indo-Pacific region. A dynamic great power game between the US and China will generate a very volatile regional security environment. Furthermore, it will make it more difficult for the regional states to find the right balance in their relationship with the US and China. In the first decade of the 21st century, the routine competition between the US and China allowed the Southeast Asian states to balance one power against the other in order to gain economic advantage and make room for their diplomatic maneuvers. However, a new and intense geo-strategic rivalry will force the regional states to make a grim choice of aligning themselves with a status quo super power bent on maintaining a liberal global order, or with a revisionist regional power determined to create a new world consistent with its own values.


Renato Cruz de Castro is a trustee in the Stratbase ADR Institute.