The symbolism is striking – the White House recently threw out the international rulebook to impose sweeping tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and that same day, more than 5,000 miles away, in Santiago, Chile, ministers from key United States allies and partners quietly inked a deal to eliminate trade barriers and spur market reforms in 11 countries stretching across the vast Pacific Rim.
Casual American observers stopped paying attention to the Trans-Pacific Partnership more than a year ago when President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement, one of his first moves in the Oval Office. But reports of the TPP’s demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated; the massive deal survived, albeit in a slimmed down form, without support from the world’s largest economy. True, each of the TPP 11 countries concluded it made sense to forge ahead with a revised agreement that prepares them to compete in an interconnected world. But more to the point, an updated deal would have been impossible without Japan. The linchpin American ally smartly stepped into the vacuum to rally other friends like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Japan’s leadership reflects a developing trend, sometimes lost in Washington’s chaos, of Asian allies and partners working overtime in response to America’s rejection of traditional diplomacy and shifting regional power dynamics. The White House can ill-afford to take these friends for granted.
Tokyo’s recent diplomatic makeover is a telltale sign of the times. Japan has historically been seen as playing defense on trade, passively backing US-sponsored rules. But with America abdicating its historic role, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thrust his nation into the unfamiliar position of championing traditional US goals rejected by the White House.
Japan’s new trade leadership reflects a welcome trend where Tokyo is no longer just content to back the United States in world affairs, but increasingly shows signs of leading on economic and security issues like open markets, quality infrastructure development and unfettered sea lanes. Events could yet derail Japan’s diplomatic ambitions, for example, either Trump’s dramatic shift from a hardline approach with North Korea or intensifying allegations about public land sold below cost for a school known for its nationalist leanings, connected to the prime minister’s wife. The curious White House decision not to exempt its closest Asian ally from steel tariffs does not help either, but right now, Tokyo’s trend-line of international activism is encouraging.
Consider Japan’s recent security contribution. The Trump administration’s nascent vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” seamlessly connecting Asia’s maritime and land spaces actually derives from an idea Abe advanced more than a decade ago and refined in 2012. Following behind-the-scenes Japanese diplomacy, the White House adopted Abe’s concept of a “Democratic Security Diamond” to grow cooperation among Australia, India, Japan and the United States. In November, the “Quad” met for the first time in more than a decade.
Australia and India are similarly beginning to raise their regional profile, both convening first-ever, leader-level summits this year with Southeast Asia to discuss shared concerns such as cybersecurity, maritime security and terrorism. South Korea’s New Southern Policy and Taiwan’s Southbound Policy are likewise novel initiatives designed to facilitate regional cooperation. Asian democracies such as India and Japan are building closer military and economic ties with one another and Australia based on common liberal values and interests.
Meanwhile, on the Korean Peninsula, longtime US ally South Korea has surprisingly grabbed the diplomatic initiative to discuss North Korea’s nuclear programme. Few expected President Moon Jae-in’s envoys to return from Pyongyang with assurances that North Korea’s young and mercurial ruler would put his nuclear weapons on the table and freeze nuclear and ballistic missile testing while negotiators talk.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons for skepticism. But at least for the time being, the growing talk of war that alarmed so many has receded. Recent White House appointments may tilt this dynamic yet again. But, for now, the president is locked into giving diplomacy a chance.
The growing chorus of friendly voices in the Indo-Pacific is an influential yet under-appreciated story. The TPP 11’s decision sends a powerful message against protectionism, just as Washington threatens to launch a destructive global trade war, which will likely cost more jobs than it creates. The countries remaining in the TPP took a careful approach in suspending relatively limited provisions of the agreement – including intellectual property language on pharmaceuticals, extended patents and copyrights, and investment rules originally requested by Washington – leaving the door ajar for a US return. Trump himself raised this possibility.
For the Pacific region, where the United States has underwritten security for seven decades, the enhanced leadership of Japan and others comes in the nick of time. China is growing more authoritarian and assertive. Security competition is heating up just as “America First” policies – recently embodied by outlandish statements towards friends and a string of high-profile administration “globalists” being replaced by advisers who may indulge the president’s more hawkish instincts – are causing some countries to doubt US reliability.
Yet, rather than resign themselves to living in China’s Asia or demonise Beijing as Public Enemy No 1, countries are now finding ways to recalibrate their foreign policy. TPP 11 reflects a common, affirmative vision for competing against China – not containing it – and other nations in today’s digital economy. That approach lies in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s unilateral tactics to address China’s harmful intellectual property and trade practices, leading to predictable promises of retaliation and threatening to put the entire global economy in disarray.
Allied actions may just be instructive, both for interpreting regional trends and as a model for other US friends. A procession of dismayed foreign policy elites have captured how the “liberal international order” faces serious challenges from within national borders and without – quite possibly from China and, more definitively, from Russia. Nevertheless, what TPP 11, in particular, and renewed efforts to build regional security architecture suggest is that – at least in Asia – the existing order may be more resilient than many expected, as foreign policy expert Jake Sullivan has argued.
However, the caution cannot be overstated: over the long-term, only steady and engaged American leadership can preserve this order. Even the world’s third-largest economy, Japan, with its constitutional limits on using force, cannot fill US shoes. In the near-term, no one possesses the resources or ambition on security issues – not even China. Fortunately, the US still claims unique military, economic, and technological characteristics, an unmatched system of alliances, and residual goodwill from its post-World War II leadership.
But these advantages are shrinking. Serious diplomatic missteps, including an unfortunate underestimation of how allies like South Korea and Japan are advancing American interests, have closed the gap. Domestic divisions arising from a collective failure to help those left behind by globalisation are sapping US strength, while secondary developments such as China’s rise and technology diffusion also disrupt the global status quo.
For the time being, one must find solace in the reality that Asia’s rules-based order, which generations of Americans and Asians worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build, is staying alive thanks to the efforts of friends around the globe and a dwindling number of farsighted leaders in the United States.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.