This op-ed originally appeared on the SCMP website, 9/16/19.
Every social movement needs its symbols. They rally people to a shared cause and challenge the status quo. During recent Hong Kong protests, the umbrella and gas mask, immortalised in a modern version of Tiananmen Square’s Lady Liberty statue, have served that purpose well. As thousands of demonstrators converged on the US consulate in Hong Kong recently, a new symbol rose as protesters waved the US flag and held signs that called on President Donald Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong from China’s control.
Several prominent demonstrators are even heading to Washington to advocate their cause. The US House of Representatives is considering legislation to thwart any increased Chinese intervention with sanctions and by eliminating trade preferences.
There was a time when an appeal for help like this would resonate in the White House too, but not now, and certainly not with this administration. The US role in Asia is changing, driven both by countries in the region and a Trump Asia policy that vacillates between somnolence and incoherence.
At its core, the US presence in Asia has largely been a welcome and natural counter to China’s growing influence and North Korea’s militarism. When it comes to threats of war, no other military can counter these threats.
But across the region, there is a notable and opposite trend gaining traction – a more unilateral approach to dealing with problems as Trump willingly abdicates the traditional US role of arbiter of disputes and balancer of powers.
Take North Korea, which continues missile testing with impunity. Neither Tokyo nor Seoul has cooperated with each other to create a unified approach to counter Pyongyang’s aggressiveness. Instead, both are engaged in a low-intensity trade battle with each other, which now affects their shared national security.
Seoul has recently severed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo that makes coordinated action against regional threats, aka North Korea, more difficult. This came in response to Japan cutting off critical exports to South Korean electronics firms and the removal of some preferential trade treatment.
Trump, meanwhile, was more inclined to meet the Taliban at Camp David (later cancelled) than bring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in together over the issue. His bromance with the North’s Kim Jong-un also sends a potent message: if you have a problem with North Korea, other than nuclear weapons, then maybe you should settle it yourself.
South Korea’s relationship with the US is also changing, albeit mostly at the edges. Seoul has pushed for, and Washington has agreed, to accelerate the return of 26 US military bases.
While the consolidation is nothing new – South Korean troops took over most duties along the demilitarised zone with North Korea over a decade ago – the turnover tracks with both Blue House and White House preferences for a less overt US presence on the peninsula.
Back in Washington, Trump’s unceremonious tweet-firing of John Bolton as national security adviser eliminated one of the last proponents of hawkish US foreign policy from the White House. Trump now has his dream team of anti-interventionists and eager appeasers on Russia, China and North Korea strategic issues. The trade war with China is a notable exception.
Granted, Bolton’s version of US engagement was perversely extreme. He advocated for a first-strike against Pyongyang and was shoving for a war with Iran. Now, however, Trump’s worst foreign policy instincts, including another useless meeting with Pyongyang, are free to further unwind traditional regional cooperation.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor certainly won’t miss Bolton’s hawkish approach. She continues to warn against any outside interference. This hews closely to Beijing’s political red line and the propagandists’ view that violent protests were the result of foreign “black hands.” That’s an easy conspiracy theory to sell with the stars and stripes flying over the crowds in Central.
Trump’s response to the most recent calls for intervention in Hong Kong’s unrest was neither swift nor resolute – he didn’t bother to comment. During previous Hong Kong police violence, he only spoke out when Washington’s political backlash became too strong to ignore.
That’s not because the idea of freedom is no longer a core US value, but the era of engaged US-Asia diplomacy has withered under Trump. At least for the next 16 months, there’s little to suggest a change of course outside the most forcing issues of the day.
The weakening Asia embrace does have its limits. Talk of a broader “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies has been largely overstated. Trump pushes the limits then moves to keep relations from spiralling out of control. That includes staying out of mainland China’s politics, including issues of human rights and the forced detention of the Uygur population in Western China.
Countries throughout Asia also still want a counterbalance to China’s growing influence. That translates into continued US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, multilateral training exercises and military sales to Taiwan. Beyond egregious violence by China or North Korea, Trump has shown little interest in other issues.
As the Trump administration continues dismantling its engagement, preferring short-term gains over longer-term strategy, Asia will inevitably adapt to rely less and less on the US.
The Hong Kong protesters should be under no illusions. The White House might offer platitudes about a peaceful resolution if forced by political circumstance, but official administration support probably won’t last for long.
For op-eds and flash commentary direct to your in-box sign up for the DecisionAnalytics newsletter above. Also @brianpklein on Twitter.