Guarini Institute Presents "Trump and Asia: from Competition to Confrontation"

By Giuseppe Spatafora

On Wednesday, February 22, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted a panel discussion on “Trump and Asia: from Competition to Confrontation.” Prof. Federigo Argentieri moderated the discussion between two new faculty members of JCU: Profs. Bridget Welsh and Seth Jaffe. The two experts presented their perspectives on the consequences of Trump’s election for the future of Asia. International Affairs student and MUN Society Chair Giuseppe Spatafora was also part of the panel due to his research on East Asian security.

Dr. Welsh opened the discussion with her analysis of the complicated political situation in East Asia. She identified the different actors involved in shaping US-Asia relations (in China, the South China Seas, and within the US Defense and State Departments) and their different positions. She noted that there are three groups shaping the policy of the Trump administration: the confrontationists, the cooperators and the capitalists. Professor Welsh outlined the eight areas that are likely going to be affected by the Trump administration during his mandate: North Korea, Taiwan, the relations with the US allies of Japan, Singapore & Australia, the South China Seas disputes and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), trade policy, terrorism, and ideological contestation. She noted that most East Asian countries now consider China as the regional leader, and see the US as a declining power. Moreover, China is becoming increasingly authoritarian and assertive in its regional presence. Often, China’s approach is to go after the allies of the US, instead of going after the US itself. The US approach of engagement has spurred regional competition and exacerbated tensions in East Asia. She noted that many East Asian countries would prefer to develop multilateral institutions rather than bilateral ties (whereas the US and China push for the latter) and are wary of the intensifying Great Power competition.  Professor Welsh concluded by saying that with a rising China pushing the US out of East Asia, conflict will become more and more likely. She also highlighted that the upcoming decade will see the empowering of dictators as the promotion of democracy by the U.S. is over.

Professor Jaffe spoke next and his question was whether China and the United States can escape the so-called Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor revolves around the dangers that occur when a rising power begins to rival a ruling one. Jaffe first provided Graham Allison’s interpretation of the Trap, which considered war as more likely than the actors involved understand: a limited conflict in the naval realm could easily escalate in East Asia. Then, Prof. Jaffe provided his own idea on the applicability of the Trap concept to the Trump administration and China: under Trump, world politics is more zero-sum, and prestige and reputation are likely to pose increasing challenges to peaceful relations. China was described as a conscious riser, while Jaffe advocated that the U.S. act as a cautious maintainer. Jaffe concluded by noting that war (or deep conflict) will become inevitable only if the actors themselves come to believe that there is no alternative to it.

Last but not least, Giuseppe Spatafora focused on four areas. First, he talked about the different perceptions of the meaning “status quo” in the South China Sea, which may be a cause of conflict. The United States and ASEAN support the “status quo ante bellum” definition, and a recognition of sovereignty based on effective control of territory. On the other hand China upholds a definition of status quo based on historical rights: the status quo will be restored only when the other parties recognize China’s sovereignty over its territory.

A second possible factor in triggering conflict could be the role of bilateral alliances. The U.S. has a strong commitment to bilateral alliances in Asia: its alliance system does not follow a multilateral structure – unlike in Europe – but a “hub and spokes” system: the US is at the center, the “hub”, while Japan, South Korea and Australia are the spokes. Given the U.S. commitment to bilateral alliances, Washington may remain potentially entangled in conflicts – be it to defend an ally or due to reputation costs.

Then, he talked about the balance of power in the Korean peninsula. He said Obama’s policy of strategic patience dramatically failed and Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin (“parallel development”) strategy has allowed limited economic expansion in North Korea and a renewed focus on nuclear and missile tests.

He concluded by analyzing the role of multilateral institutions, centered on ASEAN. Both Trump and China dislike multilateralism. China keeps serious disputes away from multilateral forums, and prefers to solve disputes bilaterally. Trump aims to control and restrain allies, and make good deals for the U.S. through bilateral agreements (sometimes, he said, even with China). Strategic hedging strategy will prove harder to pursue as the U.S. and China head for confrontation on South China Seas.