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A Poor Start for U.S.-Asia Diplomacy

How mutual misperceptions—about regional intentions, domestic politics, the Trump record, and more—complicate policymaking.
March 29, 2021
A Poor Start for U.S.-Asia Diplomacy
Then Vice President Joe Biden on December 5, 2013 in Beijing, China for an official visit. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have consistently pointed to the critical importance of alliance relationships in their conception of an effective U.S. foreign policy. That is all to the good after the wrecking-ball approach of their predecessors, but a basic problem remains. Administration principals, in an attempt at a restoration policy, underestimate the extent to which differences of perceptions and some outright misperceptions have arisen as time has passed—especially with regard to the United States’s Asian allies. Until these misperceptions, which are mutual and complex, get properly sorted it will be very hard to specify what restored alliances should actually do. Successful statecraft depends on more than good intentions and slogans about “counteracting China,” as if no one had ever entertained the notion before this past January 20. Alas, even the abundant use of that kind of language in public, while good for scoring political points at home these days, can sound pretty tone-deaf on the other side of the Pacific.

Asian Misperceptions of the United States

To generalize, as we must given the diversity of Asian societies and politics, many are the educated men and women on the Asian street, academics and journalists, and many diplomats and senior politicians too, who to one degree or another share three misperceptions about recent U.S. politics and their implications for U.S. foreign and national security policy.

First, they suppose the past four years to have been more or less normal—that U.S. domestic politics, while perhaps too telegenic for their tastes at times, exhibited more sound and fury than any real unraveling. U.S. foreign policy continuity, in particular, anyway proved more the rule than the exception; indeed, in the Asian context many approve the Trump foreign policy as normal-plus, as better than the eight years before it. In truth, the past four years have not been normal, and U.S. foreign policy, neither in Asia nor anywhere else, has not been on balance better because of it—despite some “optical” and otherwise marginal improvements of the policy status quo ante.

Second, most Asian observers define the main threat to U.S. preeminence in Asia, and in the world more broadly, as the rise of China, which most assume to be inexorable and destined to continue. It’s a case of projection: They assume we think that way because they think that way. In fairness, many Americans attuned to world affairs do share that premise, erroneous as it is, and so reinforce Asian perceptions of what we’re about.

The third generic misperception is that many Asians think they understand America, and even how American politics affects U.S. foreign policy development, but they often don’t. Many marinate themselves these days in made-in-the-USA media, particularly in places like Singapore and India where English is widely understood and spoken, and so assume their own interpretive sagacity. The truth, of course, is that what they get from this fare is as superficial and misleading as we know it typically to be, but that they, for lack of ready referents to American realities, don’t. So if, for example, America’s clickbait-driven commercial media exaggerates and misleads concerning current racial tensions in the United States, Asian viewers tend to swallow it uncritically for lack of an imaginable alternative. And if American media don’t connect that misshapen dot to U.S. foreign policy equities, neither do they.

The perception of U.S. policy in Asia over the past four years as having been “normal-plus” is a good example of these three misperceptions working in tandem. Compared to the disappointments of the Obama era, Trump administration policy came across as more rhetorically bold, more vividly anti-Chinese, and more willing to chest bump using, say, freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) than its predecessor. It did not often occur to most Asian observers that the deliberate hollowing out by a self-avowed renegade administration of the positive-sum, Enlightenment-based moral underpinning of American civic virtue, and with it the political basis for an active and constructive U.S. global policy, would before long trump—excuse the vocabulary choice—the optic of a seemingly more resolute approach.

Indeed, so much did they want to believe in normal-plus that some Asian observers tunneled their vision to see only Asia. They ignored the Trump administration’s early casting of aspersions on Article V of the NATO treaty, the very soul of America’s global alliance network that America’s Asian allies depend on too, and the later determination to pull U.S. forces out of Germany from sheer presidential pique.

They ignored President Trump’s irresponsible reaction to the September 2019 Iranian attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia: to, in effect, let the Chinese finance Gulf littoral security and police the maritime lanes to Asia, since we Americans no longer need that oil.

They ignored Trump’s efforts to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria despite the highly cost-effective value of that small deployment.

Many somehow even managed to ignore, in Asia, Trump’s off-the-cuff threat to suspend U.S.-South Korean military exercises to please Kim Jong-un, a man whose clear and present security danger to Japan Trump apparently didn’t care about.

Of what, then, did many complain? Not about the Trump administration’s failure to deploy U.S. power in a constructive and consistent way, but about its disparagement of “multilateralism”—a guaranteed applause line at ASEAN conclaves and other picturesque irrelevancies.

Ironically enough, many Asians, especially those from the smaller countries, when they’re not thinking like uncritical liberal internationalists tend to think like dyed-in-the-wool academic realists, for it is a perspective that accords domestic politics little to no impact on foreign policy behavior. They think like that mainly because not one of their countries features a foreign policy culture resembling the porous, noisy, and disputatious one we endure in the United States. Foreign and national-security policymaking is a highly insular elite affair even in the region’s genuinely democratic polities. Public opinion does sometimes jump the sidewalk to enter the main thoroughfare of foreign policy debate—say between South Korea and Japan when it comes to, for example, the “comfort women” baggage of World War II. But it’s rare.

Moreover, and obvious once you think about it, Asian observers of the United States have had a hard time appreciating just how polarized we are because most of their countries—Japan is probably the best and most important example here—are not nearly as polarized as ours is, neither within the political realm nor between it and the myriad other institutions in the society. We have a problem of government cooperating with the doyens of Silicon Valley, for example; Japan doesn’t have much of a similar problem. It really does sort of take one to know one.

Culture matters here, too. Asian societies, particularly East Asian ones, have a lower tolerance for cacophony and boat-rocking than Western societies. This proclivity often sires generic risk-aversion, which translates at times into willful if quiet political complacency. A good example arises every time U.S. policy “shocks” Japan, as it did in the 1971-72 period, and again with an eruption of economic nationalism in the late 1980s. The Japanese government voiced almost no public criticism of U.S. policy at these times of being taken unawares by its key ally’s decisions. It instead practiced incremental damage limitation in private consultations, directed parts of its administrative apparatus into a slow-rolling good-cop, bad-cop routine, and learned to hold its breath until the problem hopefully passed. It had trouble crediting the U.S. policy changes at first, and ended up behaving in a way that suggested to Americans a kind of passive-aggressive attitude.

One reason for this this sort of avoidance behavior, and it is hardly limited to Japan, is that if the assumptions on which policies have long been based are recognized as no longer valid, then leaders must do something about it—and that can be a problem. Where strong leaders predominate quick adjustment is possible, though—as in the case of the Philippines—not necessarily adjustment wisely wrought. But many East Asian elite orders work through consensus-building, which can generate unwanted internal division and argument and so be slow to progress—too slow, sometimes, for comfort in a world budding with nasty surprises.

The upshot is that some Asian officials, in some countries more than others, probably many by now after January 6, realize privately that things are a mess in the United States. But in Asian cultures it is often considered rude to mention the unseemly in public, especially if you sense that constructive and quick adjustments to a new reality will not be forthcoming. No one likes to be the guy who gets recognized as having spit in the laksa if no better bowl of laksa is available. In my recent experience living in Singapore for a year and traveling the region some before COVID shut the opportunity down, that exactly is how wishful complacency about American constancy and reliability has embedded itself over the past four years even as signs of U.S. inconstancy and unreliability proliferated.

For this ensemble of reasons, hard to quantify or nail down but nevertheless well known to experienced Asia hands, many Asians nurture misperceptions because it is psychologically comforting. The bias that everything is fine in American superpower-land implies that they can continue to profit from commerce with China without having to fear or pay much to deter security challenges beyond the more or less trivial—just some muss and fuss over mostly worthless islands in the South China Sea—because the 7th Fleet, the most powerful such fleet in world history, is there to protect them in extremis.

A subsidiary misperception is perhaps most remarkable of all: that America’s core interest in the Indo-Pacific is to protect its allies, from each other at times as well as from China (and, in a minor but atonal key, North Korea). Never mind that U.S. policy, despite its often-sugary rhetoric of “common security” goods, is not as disinterested as all that. The United States has been, is, and intends to remain a Pacific power in its own right, meaning that it will value some bilateral relationships over others, and so will inevitably exhibit behaviors from time to time that expose some allies and adjacent others to risk and discomfort. We blow kisses but we also throw elbows.

American Misperceptions of Asia

The tendency to cling to old assumptions even when people sense, in their private honesty, that they’re no longer valid is by no means an East Asian monopoly. Asians are not the only ones prone to vision tunneling, projectile assumption launching, and psychological self-massage. The earliest expressions of the Biden administration’s foreign policy have been generally tone deaf on these accounts, but especially so in regard to Asia.

President Biden’s first major foreign policy speech, delivered to the Munich Security Conference, carried the triumphal theme “America is back,” and Secretary of State Blinken echoed it in his earliest interviews. Now is the time, they have said by now several times, to revivify alliances disdained by the Trump administration, to reassert human rights as the bowsprit of the American ship of state, and to stop coddling aggressive dictators in Beijing and Moscow (presumably, Pyongyang, too).

Even our European allies have winced quietly at all this early talk of easy restoration. They see China as more of a customer than a security threat; they do see Russia as a threat but one whose very nature troublingly divides “old” NATO and “old” EU countries from the “new” ones in the haunted Rapalloesque middle. They see no utility in feeding the belligerence meters in either case.

Talk of a U.S.-led democracy summit also strikes many European observers as unseemly in the moment: The U.S. government cannot be persuasive right now lecturing others about democratic probity.

And these observers have seen the human rights movie before. They remember, even if some newly elevated high-riders in Washington have forgotten, that if an American administration needs to organize willing partners in the Middle East, say, to offset geopolitical challenges within the region (Iran) or from without (Russia), bashing your friends publicly with criticisms of their supposed moral deficiencies won’t help you do that. The Biden administration’s tightrope walk regarding Saudi Arabia—particularly its careful comments about the role of the Saudi crown prince in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and its willingness to speak up and stand up with its ally against Iranian proxy attacks—is early proof of the point, and is hopefully a more broadly comprehended salutatory lesson for the new guys.

But in Asia it has been worse. Take Japan as a first case in point. The Japanese leadership under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caught on quick to the challenge Trump presented to the bilateral relationship, and they parried it well. Some did perhaps underappreciate the implications for foreign policy in the longer run of Trump’s undermining of American liberal democratic political order, but they liked the more muscular anti-Chinese posture despite Washington’s cheap shots fired against Japan’s commercial relationship with the United States. So when President Biden now proclaims that “America is back” and expects broad smiles from Tokyo in return, the Japanese are stuck for how to reply. It would be interesting to be a proverbial fly on the wall when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga shows up in Washington on April 8 for a three-day visit. As far as most Japanese officials are concerned, America never left. And back to what? To the Obama-era “pivot to Asia” that epitomized walking loudly while carrying a small stick? No doubt Suga will not put it quite that way.

Singapore is a special second case of note that, to some extent, reflects elite attitudes elsewhere in Southeast and South Asia. Donald Trump in office was—let’s be careful how we put this given the analogy to come—‘race-proud.’ He was also comfortable with ostentatious displays of ego and wealth, liable to confuse personal with institutional interests, and at ease with chest-bumping gestures and swaggering zero-sum aphorisms. So, Crazy Rich Donald; what’s not to credit, if not necessarily to like?

As with Japanese perceptions, so with Singaporean ones: America never left. The “non-base” U.S. naval facility at Sembawang functioned as usual, the USAF air-wing on the island, too, and the absence of a confirmed ambassador for the entire Trump term counted as a bonus blessing in disguise. As silence is often golden, so can a low diplomatic profile prove valuable to a small country looking to stay out of needless trouble.

If America being “back” means a risk that the Biden administration will grant Chinese suzerainty over the South China Sea in return for a grand bargain over “climate change”—a prospect some in Asia now exaggerate (I hope)—then many Asians would prefer we stay away.

The principals of the new Biden administration, not one of them particularly steeped in Asia policy experience, don’t seem yet to get any of this. With a few mid-level but thankfully well-placed exceptions, they’re unable to see things as Asians see them, so mistake mere politeness for something closer to presumed ecstasy. Let me briefly detail how many of the region’s most experienced hands do see things as they have developed in recent years.

When President Obama spoke of “pivoting” to Asia, devised the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and set aside time to attend ASEAN meetings, experienced Asian hands applauded. But the honeymoon clouded over fast for one basic reason: Asian statesmen and officialdom recognized that China under Xi Jinping had changed, and not in a good way; but they saw scant sign of a similar recognition in Obama’s Washington.

The Obama administration brokered a quiet deal during late 2012 and early 2013 between Beijing and Manila concerning Scarborough Shoal, but when China later reneged the administration did not back its ally, stating instead, to shock in Manila, that the U.S. government recognized no sovereign claim to the shoal.

Then, in 2016, Xi Jinping promised Obama that China would not militarize the South China Sea, but he used the coast guard rather than the PLA Navy as a translucent fig-leaf to do so anyway; Obama again did nothing.

He also did nothing for eight years as Pyongyang accelerated its nuclear program except to give the “policy” a new name: “strategic patience.”

Outside East Asia, the Syria red-line debacle of August 2013 had already shaken confidence in U.S. verve; accurately or not, Asian foreign policy hands assumed that everyone, everywhere with designs against U.S. interests would take the measure of that judgment. They interpreted Chinese boldness in the South China Sea in the months and years thereafter in light of the red-line episode.

Now consider how they saw the Trump administration’s behavior. Early on, in April 2017, Trump bombed Syria over its use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians. But Asians remember something about that sequence of events we often forget: He announced it while at dinner with Xi Jinping. You don’t have to wink subtly down into your vichyssoise to make a point if your timing is just right.

Then, later in 2017, when the North Koreans shot a missile on a trajectory over Japan, Kim Jong-un boasted of “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam.” Trump threatened “fire and fury” in response; no subsequent North Korean test has followed a similar trajectory.

Most important, the Trump administration explicitly rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea and ordered the 7th Fleet to conduct multiple FONOPs to challenge them. By contrast, during Obama’s second term proposals to mount more FONOPs elicited awkward public interagency debate, undermining their efficacy even when they were approved.

Misperceptions Joined

So yes it’s true, many Asian analysts are too mesmerized by the chunk of the U.S. policymaking iceberg they can see above the waterline, and too oblivious to subtler erosions below it they can espy only dimly and with less well-practiced effort. Many still don’t acknowledge, despite what happened on January 6, that the Trump era flowed from major dysfunction in American society, from which Trump emerged as a symptom. Nor do many readily concede that over four years Trump became an accelerant and shaper, if not an outright cause, of even more acute dysfunction.

What too many Asians and Americans alike do not sufficiently grasp is that during these four years the successful postwar grand strategy of the United States—that of supplying security goods to the global commons in the interests of deterring would-be hegemons, and creating an environment conducive to stable regional peace and growing prosperity—was repudiated from the level of the White House. Uniquely in modern history, the preeminent global power all but voluntarily abdicated its role.

Or tried to—and here is the source of much lingering confusion. Trump proposed no alternative grand strategy for he had no ideas, only, as Lionel Trilling once put it, “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” So, like a body without a head, the strategy continued anyway in the form of bureaucratic habits and legacy budgets, much as it had done through obliviousness rather than disdain during the Obama years.

Especially during the early period of the Trump administration, officials like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster essentially ignored the president whenever his “gestures” struck them as irresponsible and untutored. One official, special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey, revealed in an interview on the cusp of his retirement in 2020 that his office had kept sensitive and important information away from the White House for fear of stimulating counterproductive reactions. Tricky business that, perhaps justified in extraordinary circumstances, but nothing to make a habit out of.

Many foreign interlocutors took such efforts in the upper echelons of the U.S. bureaucracy as assurances that things would not jump the tracks in a big way just because a foreign policy novice occupied the Oval Office. Many Americans believed, or hoped, the same. But as time bore on those assurances grew increasingly shaky. The sum of it all is that the general incompetence of the Trump White House enabled more default policy continuity than might otherwise have been the case, but it did not entirely prevent a significant accumulation of damage. Trump did not think he was a novice, so increasingly did not defer to others as many predicted he would. Even John Bolton’s belief that he, as a shrewd bureaucratic maneuverer, could subtly outflank the president to protect the country from his tantrums and encyclopedic ignorance learned ultimately that the half-life of his efforts was much shorter than he hoped. Executive branch bureaucracies, even when managed by high-level experienced hands, eventually lose energy without presidential direction.

It was or should have become clear to most, abroad as well as at home, that President Trump’s zero-sum mentality, in which there were only winners and losers, all calculated in neo-mercantilist dollar signs, held no place for genuine allies. And increasingly as the months wore on there was no place for standard consultation with them, nor any room for regular trade negotiations among partners in the absence of sanctions and verbal threats.

Trump’s pervasive irritable mental gestures have left a mark. Even the truest allies the United States has in Europe, the ones who know us best by far, are now reluctant to throw in whole hog with the Biden administration, not because they doubt its benignity or suspect its sincerity, but for fear that in a too-near future it could all unravel with the next convulsion of American domestic politics, whether propelled from the hyper-ideological left or right.

So far, anyway, Biden administration principals, busy managing domestic crises as well they should, seem as insular and self-absorbed as many Asian observers have been. They cannot seem to bring themselves to see the past dozen years as most Asians have, a perspective that shadows their central aspiration of policy restoration. Many among our Asian allies, for their part, still nurse the comforting illusion that nothing ever really came unstuck in the United States in the first place, and that, even if it did, all is again well now that Biden is president. It’s as though some impish celestial satyr thinks that by pairing mutual illusions the problems they mask can be made to vanish.

They won’t. The persisting American unstuckness, namely the fundamental upheaval churning within our own society whose causes we mostly fail to understand and whose looming transformative potential we refuse to acknowledge, not China, will for the foreseeable future be the primary determinate of U.S foreign policies. In the longer run, and possibly the shorter run too, American policy can be no more successful and constructive abroad than it is virtuous and stable at home. The sooner everyone with equities in the U.S. alliance structure in Asia realizes this, the better off we’ll all be, together.

Adam Garfinkle

Adam Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose.