Guest post by Robert C. Thomas, YPFP Asia-Pacific Fellow
Inward-looking US politics and policy under the current presidential administration have proven to be a source of geopolitical concern for US allies and trade partners. Uncertain about US policy and leadership, they have been looking for ways to secure their interests in a world where the longtime guarantor of global prosperity and stability seems less committed to filling that role. US debates and actions focused on protectionism and a skepticism of existing international relationships have preoccupied countries in both Asia and Europe, who have increasingly looked for chances to collaborate on their own in the absence of US leadership. This proactive approach may dampen some risks caused by US withdrawal. However, there are limits to this approach.
To start with a positive development, Japan and the European Union have moved to finalize a massive new trade deal, meant to fill the void left by the Trump administration’s pivot away from trade deals with Asia and Europe alike. In a further effort to create new momentum of their own, EU officials are now working on proposals to fast-track approval for other trade deals currently in the works. Meanwhile, Japan has taken the lead in efforts to find ways to modify and implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal without the involvement of the United States. South Korea has sought to further this momentum as well by resuming and hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Economic Ministers’ Meeting to discuss further economic ties between Asia and Europe.
Many players involved also haven’t been content to leave China in charge of serving as the primary economic bridge and mediator from one end of the Eurasian landmass to the other. Japan has worked to carve out its own opportunities for involvement in overland shipping infrastructure through Central Asia and has collaborated with India on further opportunities to forge new links across the landmass. Japan and India have continued to push expanded collaboration on issues ranging from infrastructure investment to defense technology research. This includes initiatives like a new Indian high-speed rail project made possible through a sweetheart deal provided by Japan, as well as the early sketch of a broader regional infrastructure campaign in answer to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Although these new cooperative projects are likely to have a positive effect on the global economy, they are not an unambiguous gift to the United States, which risks losing influence by standing on the outside instead of pushing for a seat at the same table. Major trade deals like that negotiated between the European Union and Japan stand to cost US companies market share. They also risk eroding US policymakers’ influence on global economic rules and standards that still periodically divide the United States and its partner countries. Rolling back the integration of the world’s largest economy into global trade would harm the United States while also leaving tremendous gains for the broader global economy abandoned on the table.
Unlike economic initiatives, the prospects for security cooperation between Asia and Europe look less secure. The military capabilities of US partner countries in Asia and Europe have declined (in some cases precipitously) since the Cold War, leaving these nations less capable of deterring potential threats in their own backyards, let alone working seriously to support or defend partners on opposite sides of the great Eurasian expanse. Even France, a European power with territories in the Asia-Pacific, seems less than ambitious about its involvement in cross-regional security issues.
The European Union and its member nations have recently been diplomatically active and vocal in responding to North Korean threats against South Korea and Japan, but this is a case of low-cost involvement in responding to a dangerous but relatively distant threat. It is fairly easy for the European Union to take a strong stand against a rogue state like North Korea, with which its members have little trade or other direct exposure. The same is not true of their relationships with China, which are characterized by deep and growing economic interdependence. This has already made European governments increasingly wary of challenging or displeasing the Chinese government when they can avoid it.
It is telling that such pressure, alongside domestic distractions and broader geopolitical uncertainty, stalled a coherent EU response to the recent border crisis between China and India. Similarly, with South Korea preoccupied by its northern neighbor and Japan still seeking to resolve post-World War Two territorial disputes with Russia, traditional American partners in East Asia are hardly likely to come to the defense of Eastern Europe. The United States remains a unique (perhaps indispensable) partner for its combination of force projection capabilities and its ability to coordinate and facilitate joint security operations with such geographically distant allies.
Although productive and long-overdue, stronger ties between Asia and Europe will only do so much to advance global prosperity and security in the absence of more stable involvement from the United States. It may no longer be appropriate or possible for the United States to aspire to be the sole hub of the international system with its partner nations as the spokes. However, it still holds a unique economic and military role. Leaders in Asia and Europe should reinvigorate their efforts to draw the US administration back into a more proactive partnership, while US policymakers should be on the lookout for opportunities to boost and take advantage of the increasingly independent bids for cooperation between US partners in both regions.