China and Asia Policy in America is the preserve of a small cadre of Area Experts that has dominated the picture since Secretary Henry Kissinger re-established relations with China — after a purge of the last generation of “China Hands” was purged for having “lost” China.
If Donald J. Trump becomes President, he will be able to claim direct, personal experience in dealing with commercial Chinese interests successfully.
How will he deal with the Kissinger generation of East Asian experts?
Donald Trump made clear during the campaign that he is unsatisfied with the state of relations with allies like Japan, Korea, and peer competitors like China in trade and security.
For China, Trump is calling for renegotiating trade deals, appreciation of the Yuan, ending Chinese IP violations, and removing illegal export subsidies and unfair practices.
Trump is adamant that allies like Japan, Korea and SE Asian states have to carry more of a share of the defense burden.
Donald J. Trump will regard it as a major threat to the US as opposed to a regional issue.
Will that alter his priorities?
North Korea’s nuclear missile threat will condition how the U.S. might use its leverage with China.
President Hillary Clinton would call for a more robust policy against North Korea by convincing China to act along the lines of inherited policy instincts.
The defense / security establishment, including the China experts, are on record as overwhelmingly opposed to Trump, but what might he do, or what kinds of change might he set in motion?
Whether Trump sees China as a credible partner in curbing the North Korean threat to the US will impact the priorities of US security vs. Trade issues.
Donald J. Trump is likely to give the existing “China experts” and diplomats at least one chance to perform better than they have historically done on the North Korean issue.
Trump, unlike Clinton, will probably have little or no faith in either the capacity or willingness of Beijing to use its leverage against North Korea when China is openly encouraging Kim Jong-Un with increases in both military and civilian aid.
The history of failures including the 2007 agreement where the “bribe” was delivered only to have the agreement broken shortly after after weighs heavily on the credibility of the China and North Korean Experts in the US. It is highly probable that if China Experts advocate a Clinton like policy, they will not even get one chance.
Donald J. Trump would do something different.
Suppose Trump decides that China is not a credible partner, and / or, cannot deliver on North Korea. That will free him to in parallel, pursue a military option to defend against North Korean threats, and use his leverage against China primarily on trade and commercial issues.
What would a military deterrence option look like?
Trump would focus on S. Korea and Japan look to encourage the build out of relevant defense capabilities.
Raising defense spending in the traditional manner, however, is not enough.
Put simply, as the US and its allies consider a surge in defense capability, they would look to work together in terms of transfer of available U.S. legacy stock where appropriate and increase in spending either in joint programs such as F-35 or Aegis, or the acceleration of spending on programs in the pipeline like Japanese submarines or South Korean Pumas and amphibious ships.
It is not simply about symbolic increases in defense spending; it is about accelerating deterrent capabilities against the North Korean threat.
The US could look to focus more on the air and naval side of deterrence and bulk up South Korean army defenses, include missiles and armor. For example, transfers of heavy armor from the US will greatly increase the capability of the ROK to mount an invasion should that become necessary.
As Ed Timperlake noted in an article published in early 2014:
Deterrence will rest on the ability to dismantle the offensive strike forces of North Korea and to pull apart its command structure. It is not about preparing for a new version of the battle of the Marne.
As the US Army considers its contribution moving forward it is less about the armored forces than about the mobile defense forces. It is less about the tank and more about the THAAD.
South Korea could virtually take over the counter-offensive ground role, and the US could transfer more ground maneuver equipment in the current inventory as the US Army worked its own transformation strategy with the US Air Force and Navy somewhat akin to the transformation envisaged in Australia.
In other words, by combining transfer of some missions to allies currently done by the United States (e.eg. the role of ground maneuver forces in the defense of South Korea( with the enhancement of their capabilities and an accelerated transformation of air and naval American forces — in conjunction with Japan, deterrent capabilities could be put in place for the deterrence of illiberal regimes in the region.
The Trump Administration would seek to usher in a new era of “Offshore Balancing” and South Korea and Japan might well be core test cases of the strategy.
Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.