Asia Needs a New Foreign Policy Doctrine in the Age of Trump

By Chandran Nair
The World Post

HONG KONG — Donald Trump, now the all-but-certain Republican nominee for President, has been portrayed as bombastic, poorly informed and self-contradictory. And his foreign policy speech, where he laid out his "America First" foreign policy, which commentators described as "contradictory and lacking specifics" did little to persuade people otherwise. Even the editor of The National Interest — the conservative journal that sponsored the speech — admitted that he "wasn't converted" by Trump's claims.

But what is Trump actually wrong about, and should Asia worry about him? After all, even if Trump loses in November, his wild statements are indicative of a dangerous trend in American politics that is making the world a more dangerous place. The West’s failed strategies of intervention, led by the U.S., must compel Asia — the world's most culturally diverse region with much of the world’s people and economic activity and some of its largest Muslim populations — to propose its own approach to resolving international crises and reduce global instability.

Irrespective of who becomes the U.S. President, Asia needs to think carefully about what happens as both America and China's roles in the region inevitably change — and how an "Asian Doctrine" might need to replace an outdated reliance on an American foreign policy that combines economic domination with peacekeeping and protection through ever-increasing military might.

There are many reasons for a rethink. One is Southeast Asia, which is now becoming a new front for the so-called Islamic State, with Islamic militants in IndonesiaBangladesh and the Philippines swearing allegiance to the caliphate. This reinforces what many outside the West have long known: that continuous Western interventions, especially in the Middle East, have made the world a more dangerous place. However, much of the Western establishment and foreign policy elite still believe that the use of force is a useful and a morally correct foreign policy option. President Obama’s recent interview in The Atlantic shows how entrenched the idea of intervention is in Washington. One can still read commentary after commentary in Western newspapers stressing that the chaos in Syria stems from not intervening enough.

Now enter Donald Trump, who is proving himself skilled at knowing what various sections of the American public want to hear. He wants his audience to believe the U.S. can have the best of both worlds: a foreign policy marked by both isolationism and aggressive intervention in pursuit of American "security." Take his claim that America’s allies should pay for the privilege of American protection, even as Trump's America aims to continue to project force unilaterally around the world.

Commentators have called this view naive, but in doing so, they betray their belief that America's vast global military presence is unequivocally good for both the rest of the world and the U.S. The notion that the situation truly is "win-win" for both America and the world is often challenged outside of the U.S., but also sometimes within Washington, albeit for different reasons. Even President Obama is sometimes skeptical, as revealed by his stated frustration with "free-riders" in his interview in The Atlantic.

Then consider the feeling among Trump's supporters that he has the "guts to drop the [nuclear] bomb." Trump's Republican colleagues have used similar language when talking about bombing ISIS, but the use of force isn't a solely Republican obsession. Politico’s former CEO in The Wall Street Journal called for a third party that can "exploit the fear factor" around terrorism. And many in Washington predict that Hillary Clinton will be more hawkish than President Obama. As secretary of state, she consistently pushed more aggressive solutions to world problems, encapsulated in her support of the catastrophic military intervention in Libya.

The sentiments that Trump capitalizes on are a dangerous combination of isolationism and hawkishness. It is a view shared by many in the U.S., who want an America that is more willing to use force but less willing to work with, talk to and support other countries — part of a "with us or against us" approach to foreign policy. Even for those in Asia who have never been fans of America’s foreign policy, the status quo suddenly appears better than the frightening alternative that might emerge in November.

But Asia needs to look beyond just the next American election and not simply hope for a better U.S. president. The world’s most populous region does not need to be beholden to an American foreign policy and its massive military presence, which combines an offer of protection to friends and "shock and awe" to enemies. To many around the world, the U.S. is increasingly looking like the superpower most at risk of losing its way in today’s more complex and interdependent world despite its tremendous contributions in other areas of human endeavor. Donald Trump's "America First" campaign is the most extreme form of a brash political culture that often sees force as a key part of any solution. Regardless of whether you think America's presence in the region has been good or bad in the past, Asian countries should not rely on American might as the foundation for regional order.

Against this background, Asian countries should work to remake geopolitics so it is no longer stuck in the post-war narrative where America's overwhelming military supremacy is viewed as the only way to solve the world’s problems. As America’s role changes, Asia and the world need to think of what may replace it. At the heart of this re-evaluation is the need for Asian countries to push against the West next time it considers military force.

Asian countries must also propose their own approach to conflict resolution: an "Asian Doctrine," the immediate goal of which would be preventing massive instability and loss of life from interventions that provoke new and old resentments, not pursuit of interest or "universal values." The doctrine should be based on the understanding that ousting leaders — even odious ones — can create far more harm than good and that, while calls for regime change may make for good sound bites in the West, there is no shortcut to a fair, effective and democratic government.

The common refrain is that Asian countries (with the possible exception of China) are not strong enough economically or militarily to merit a seat at the table. However, economic and military power should not be the metric; instead, Asian countries have a role to play based on their deep experience with these issues, often at the hands of Western colonialism. A "coalition of the wise" must create an "Asian Doctrine" and outline its guiding principles on how it would help resolve some of the world's most pressing crises.

China, India, Japan, Indonesia and other Asian countries must not build an Asian doctrine just for their own sakes but also for the West’s as well. Washington and its allies need to be told in no uncertain terms that they will not find support for another destructive military intervention and so should think again. An alternate Asian model can encourage not just better policy in the region but also in the West. The price of inaction is now too high for Asia to remain subservient to Western interests.

The meeting last week in Beijing between Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, and Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, is a good sign that cooperation is possible. A meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G20 in September seems likely and should not be wasted as these two nations are key to a new Asian Doctrine that rewrites the post-World War II narrative.

That narrative allows Americans to often justify America’s involvement in Asia by arguing that it forces Asian countries (namely China) to use diplomacy rather than force to solve problems. However, if we accept that the U.S. has encouraged China to make "better" decisions, we should also accept that China has encouraged the U.S. to do the same — at least in Asia, where Washington has largely pursued dialogue and stability over radical change.

Even in those issues where the U.S. is more actively involved, such as the South China Sea dispute (even though Washington has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington has at least tried to build some regional consensus, even if the policy’s implicit goal is to contain China. And while there is disagreement about the nature of America's involvement in Asia, it is also clear that it has done better here than in the Middle East, where client states have rarely challenged and often supported a disastrous American push towards intervention. But even this seems to be changing, as Saudi Arabia seeks to be less dependent on oil.

What Washington and its Western allies often forget is that China's growing engagement in Asia is not viewed in the same way as in the West. Even if Asian countries are uneasy with China's expanding influence, they do not view it with the xenophobia that surrounds many Western discussions about China — see Trump’s recent claim that China is "raping" the U.S. for a particularly egregious example. China is, after all, not new to the region: its influence is centuries old, and significant Chinese populations can be found all over Southeast Asia.

Asian countries do have legitimate concerns about China's new role as a regional and global power but the effort to find a stable and peaceful way to cooperate with a rising China needs to be driven by Asian countries — not by American geopolitical interests. Regional stability will not be helped by the presence of a non-regional superpower deliberately undermining China's relations with its neighbors.

An "Asian Doctrine" does not yet exist, at least in any formal capacity, but we can see some evidence that Asian governments approach international affairs differently. ASEAN and the Non-Aligned Movement have long disapproved of intervention, instead supporting economic engagement and investment. Official development aid to countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar has been part of a longstanding Japanese policy of peaceful engagement. Relatively smaller countries like Malaysia and Singapore have gotten involved in more global issues, such as the international force to protect shipping from pirates.

China's global initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Road, One Belt project, should be viewed as an effort to organize an approach to trade, commerce and culture and to ultimately bring peace and prosperity on different organizing principles. China has even appointed its first envoy to the Syrian conflict. These policies of engagement are not perfect but they can be a good starting point for a new Asian approach that rejects large-scale military buildups.

Finally, Singapore is an example of Asian "soft power." The city-state presents itself as a model for other countries. Singapore does not tell governments to change — it gives them a path towards that change, as it did with China in the 1980s. Whether or not one agrees with Singaporean governance, this problem-solving approach is one that is more likely to be accepted by countries than the lecturing, sanctions and military threats that often accompany Western diplomacy, much of which is increasingly falling on deaf ears.

These are merely some of the approaches emerging out of Asia. They are not formalized and are sometimes combined with self-interest, but they are a good starting point if we are to create a new doctrine without the wars and instability the West has created in the Middle East and now even in Europe. A confident Asia will find a global audience — and perhaps a Western audience tired of intervention — receptive to new ideas. And when continued Western "go-it-alone" strategies threaten the stability of the world, Asia cannot afford to stay silent any longer.