Asia unsure about level of US commitment to the region
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New Year’s Eve marked a year since President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which had passed in the Senate by unanimous consent and in the House of Representatives by an uncontentious voice vote. ARIA symbolically authorized $1.5 billion for regional security, aid, and diplomatic initiatives, and trumpets the United States’ enduring commitment to a litany of existing agreements and treaties with our Indo-Pacific allies and partners.

One year later, however, most countries across Asia and the Pacific have even more reason to feel apprehensive regarding continued U.S. engagement and America’s future relevance.

Though Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: GAO finds administration broke law by withholding Ukraine aid | Senate opens Trump trial | Pentagon to resume training Saudi students soon US military to soon resume training for Saudi students State Department cancels two classified congressional briefings on Iran, embassy security MORE broadcasts hopes to reallocate U.S. forces to the region to “compete with the Chinese” and to “reassure our allies,” the current administration’s appetite for maintaining troops at even present levels appears questionable. In November, Esper voiced that South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more” to support the 28,500 American personnel currently stationed there. Trump once griped the U.S. gets “practically nothing” from this military presence, and has previously floated a troop withdrawal - both in public speeches and in discussions with advisors.

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A recent, fourth round of negotiations between Washington and Seoul ended without a burden-sharing agreement; U.S. officials demanded a fivefold increase in Seoul’s contribution, to $5 billion annually. The prior instance of talks ended even more abruptly, after only 80 minutes behind closed doors.

In February, the same month when Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnBrent Budowsky: The patriotic duty of Senate Republicans US ambassador: 'I was personally surprised' North Korea did not send 'Christmas gift' Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall MORE sat together in Vietnam for their second summit, Pyongyang embarked upon mass-production of as many as 70 mobile missile launchers, and the mood in northeast Asia this December was overshadowed by a provocative and worrisome allusion to a “Christmas gift” from North Korea. Some South Koreans urge self-reliance, and development of their own indiginous nuclear arsenal to deter the North.

With the U.S. ineffectual in discouraging nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, neighboring countries have pivoted toward China. Two days before Christmas, the Japanese and South Korean prime ministers met separately with Chinese general secretary Xi Jinping in Beijing, followed by a joint dialogue with premier Li Keqiang in Sichuan province.

This trilateral meeting was all the more significant because it marked the first official talks between South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Japan’s Shinzo Abe in over 15 months. A semiconductor trade feud combined with the ongoing row over Japan’s colonial and World War II legacy in Korea severely strained relations and, in November, threatened the termination of a critical intelligence-sharing pact between Tokyo and Seoul. The U.S. refrained from direct mediation, with China now filling the void.

While the U.S. has relinquished influence with Korea and Japan, Washington’s relationship with Pacific island countries is also uncertain. Though Trump hosted several leaders at the White House in May, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Federated States of Micronesia in August, U.S. inaction on climate change – the most serious global threat according to Pacific islanders - could handicap further outreach.

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The Pacific’s geopolitical landscape is also shifting. In Bougainville this year, over 98 percent voted to seperate from Papua New Guinea, and in 2020, the Micronesian island of Chuuk and the French territory New Caledonia will also hold independence referenda. A splintered Chuuk could complicate the U.S. military’s exclusive basing rights, and each newly-established island country provides deep-pocketed China with a fresh opportunity to extend its foreign aid and influence, and perhaps even to construct forward naval bases as a counterweight to U.S. capabilities in Guam and Hawaii.

Australia is perhaps the closest American ally in the region, by virtue of a common language, longstanding intelligence ties under the Five Eyes framework, and an extraordinary level of military interoperability. But Canberra has opted to join a major, Chinese-brokered free trade deal, and concern with U.S. commitment continues to grow, evidenced by murmurings that American foreign policy “has begun to oscillate more disturbingly” and that the U.S. has “wearied of the task” of global leadership.

Former Australian defense official Hugh White is one of the more polarizing academics Down Under, but he outlines the hallmarks of durable U.S. commitment: a coherent and credible strategy toward China, a realistic accounting of this strategy’s costs and risks, and a demonstrative consensus that Americans are prepared to shoulder such over several decades.

After one year, ARIA’s lyrics have faded, its well-intentioned legislative provisions grown stale. Throughout 2020, meaningful reassurance will require renewed volume and a far bolder flavor of U.S. engagement. 

Evan Karlik is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and an affiliate at Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies. He spent his early childhood in Samoa and the Philippines, and served last year as a defense fellow in the House of Representatives. The views expressed herein are his own.