January 11, 2017

Congress and Asia Strategy in the Trump Administration

As the Trump administration prepares to take office, it does so with more policy uncertainty than any incoming government in memory. On the campaign trail, the president-elect articulated positions that were at odds with many of the basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy since 1945. These included his antipathy toward trade, skepticism about the value of U.S. allies, and fondness for autocratic rulers. His advisors, in contrast, have articulated far more traditional Republican positions, emphasizing military primacy and unilateralism, but with objectives that are well within the bounds of traditional U.S. foreign policy. During the transition period, the president-elect has suggested that he may well be willing to upend longstanding U.S. policies in Asia, but it is simply too soon to opine in any detail on what Trump will mean for Asia.  Washington and the world eagerly await more clarity on what policies the new administration will pursue.

Questions for the Secretary of Defense-Designate: Asia Strategy in the Next Administration

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In November, the Center for a New American Security published its own recommendations for the future of U.S. defense policy toward Asia, entitled “Counterbalance: Red Teaming the Rebalance in the Asia-Pacific.” In this report, CNAS scholars sought to evaluate the progress the Pentagon has made in its four primary defense initiatives that comprise its Rebalance to Asia. It also analyzed how China was likely to react to those efforts in the coming years as it sought to advance its own regional interests and offered concrete policy prescriptions for the incoming administration. This brief adapts that report into actionable recommendations for Capitol Hill so that it may exercise its institutional memory and expertise to buttress the new administration and shape the strategic thinking of its leadership.

Congress’s role in shaping foreign affairs, while sometimes unsung, is not new. In the Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton argued that legislative oversight over foreign policy was crucial, warning that it would be unwise to leave the country’s “intercourse with the rest of the world to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a President of the United States.” Two centuries later, congressional scholar Donald. R. Wolfensberger clarified that Capitol Hill “does not try to upstage the president,” but it still “likes to keep an oar in the water." While the president steers the ship of state through foreign affairs, Congress provides guidance and propulsion. By appropriating funds, passing laws and treaties, and confirming nominees to lead government agencies, the legislative branch exerts significant influence on how the executive branch conducts American foreign policy. This brief argues that when it comes to the future of American foreign policy in Asia, Congress has a vital role to play. It also has important tools at its disposal and clear junctures at which it can exert its influence.

Rebalancing and Counterbalancing in Asia

The last eight years have seen highly consequential developments for U.S. national security interests in Asia. On one side of the ledger, the Obama administration refocused American diplomatic, military, and economic attention to the Asia-Pacific region under the Rebalance. The Department of Defense has begun to implement four major lines of effort in the region, including modernizing U.S. force posture, expanding security assistance efforts, devising new operational concepts for war fighting, and beginning to invest in a Third Offset strategy of technological innovation. Each of these initiatives aims to secure for the United States access to the seas and skies of the Western Pacific, despite growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges from China. The Pentagon’s initiatives for Asia have all encountered obstacles, but the department has nonetheless made progress in all four areas.

On the other side of the balance sheet, China has made considerable advances in its efforts to advance its own interests. It has proven deft at using law enforcement and paramilitary vessels to establish and maintain a considerable presence in the East and South China Seas. It has executed a rapid-fire, systematic island-building campaign in the South China Sea, transforming reefs and rocks into small but bristling island bases equipped with military runways, port facilities, and major weapons platforms. Moreover, China has continued to produce the A2/AD capabilities that seek to prevent U.S. forces from operating near China’s shores, while also investing in significant power projection capabilities. If the United States is to retain its access to the seas and skies of Asia and to remain a credible security guarantor, it must employ a defense strategy that directly engages these worrisome trends. Doing so will require Washington to think through how Beijing is likely to respond to U.S. initiatives so that policymakers can construct a strategy that is truly strategic.

At a time of political flux in Washington, and a rapidly evolving security environment in Asia, Capitol Hill can serve as a ballast to ensure a smooth transition and policy consistency. 

The CNAS “Counterbalance” report offers numerous recommendations to this effect for the new administration. But if the United States is to devise and implement a holistic, top-down strategy for engaging the challenges that China poses, Congress must have a role. At a time of political flux in Washington, and a rapidly evolving security environment in Asia, Capitol Hill can serve as a ballast to ensure a smooth transition and policy consistency. Senior political appointees must place U.S. defense interests in Asia among their top priorities, and Congress can help to ensure that they do by asking carefully targeted questions at confirmation hearings. Once the administration’s new leadership is in place, Congress can also help to ensure that its Asia approach is coordinated and fruitful by mandating several strategic reviews to keep its policy on track.

Confirmation Hearings

Confirmation hearings are the manifestation of the Senate’s advise-and-consent role, but they can also serve as venues for fact-finding. As the Trump administration prepares to send its designees to lead the Department of Defense, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee should use the opportunity to explore its approach for the Asia-Pacific  and to determine where the administration may seek change from and continuity with Obama policies. Confirmation hearings will provide important accountability mechanisms for future policy and may highlight the areas in which the administration needs to do more policy development. The following questions should illicit valuable answers from the nominee for secretary of defense – as well as nominees for the deputy secretary or assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.

Questions for the Secretary of Defense-Designate

What are the United States’ leading national security interests in the Asia-Pacific Region? 

Senators should interrogate to what extent the Trump administration will continue to hold traditional conceptions of U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific, including securing freedom of the seas, deterring conflict and coercion, and promoting adherence to international laws and standards. The next secretary of defense will take office during a perilous time for these interests as an increasingly assertive China challenges norms and U.S. presence in a region rapidly becoming the world’s economic and demographic center of gravity. Senators should also ask the designee hard questions over what interests Washington should be willing to fight. 

What trends in U.S.-China military competition should drive the Pentagon’s strategy for the region? What are the implications for U.S. allies and partners, including Taiwan?

Regardless of who won the 2016 election, the United States was going to have to reckon with the growing challenge posed by Chinese military modernization and expansion. Beijing’s anti-access investments hold the potential to meaningfully contest American force projection and imperil U.S. assets and partners throughout the region. The issue has taken greater importance since Taiwan has returned to the forefront of Sino-American relations. On the campaign trail, the president-elect was skeptical of U.S. alliances, but has engaged in an early and visible embrace of Taiwan, suggesting that he may upend the longstanding “One China” policy. The new secretary of defense will need to clarify how he intends to engage in military competition with China and how this may depart from traditional U.S. approaches to China and allies alike.

What is the role of U.S. allies and partners in deterrence, defense, and broader national security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region?

Since his campaign trail rhetoric calling on allies to pay more for their own security, the president-elect has reversed course somewhat, reaffirming U.S. defense guarantees on phone calls and in meetings. American treaty allies have long been among Washington’s most vital interests in the region, and the United States’ standing in Asia – from its force posture, to its strategies for technological innovation, to its broader position of leadership – will be affected by how the administration views and treats its partners.

U.S. Force Posture in Asia

What do you expect to be the future requirements of American force posture in Asia and around the world?

U.S. force posture, or the forward-deployed troops, platforms, and assets that comprise its ability to deter and prosecute conflict, have long been assumed to help blunt the impact of Chinese assertiveness in Asia. Permanent bases and rotational access agreements are the backbone of this posture, but relatively little is known about how this new administration intends to approach force posture in Asia or worldwide. Does the new secretary of defense expect that U.S. force posture in Asia will change significantly? With the U.S.-Philippines alliance in a precarious state, how will the administration assure its access to the bases granted under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement? Does the Trump administration intend to seek further expansion and diversification of its force posture in Asia? If so, where will it seek this? How might its demands for additional host nation support affect basing arrangements and realignment initiatives in South Korea and Japan?

What is the future of the Third Offset Strategy?

 One of the driving forces behind Chinese military modernization – and its potential to contest U.S. influence and force projection in the Asia-Pacific – is the proliferation of precision-guided munitions. The Obama administration began what has come to be known as the Third Offset Strategy – an effort to renew American military technological superiority and counter the growing threat from Chinese precision-strike weapons, such as anti-ship missiles. The Third Offset has recently become more concrete as the Pentagon has begun to invest in associated platforms and capabilities and thought seriously about the intentions those may send to China. There is a strong case to be made that the Pentagon should continue to invest in innovative defense technologies that allow the United States to operate in a world of ubiquitous precision-guided munitions. The next secretary of defense will need to have a clear plan for where to take the Third Offset Strategy next, even if it continues under a different name. In what areas must the United States invest, what signals will this send to China and other competitors, and how will it incorporate allies? If the secretary of defense-designate sees no future for this initiative, he should have a clear argument for why this is and how the United States can protect its forces, platforms, and interests in its absence.

How will U.S. security assistance in Asia change under the Trump administration?

 Since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on security assistance programs, including foreign military sales, financing, education, and training. By building partner capabilities, Washington can help to provide for the defense of like-minded states in ways that may be more politically sustainable for both the United States and the target country. Yet U.S. security assistance programs vary widely across agencies and countries, have distinct (and sometimes even conflicting) goals, and relatively few metrics for measuring their success. The new secretary of defense will inherit the difficult task of coordinating security assistance across regions, programs, and agencies, and Senators should be ready to ask the secretary-designate about his plan to tackle it. 

Press the Trump Administration to Develop a Strategy for Asia

After the pomp and circumstance of confirmation hearings are over, Congress has other tools to ensure that the Trump administration continues to develop a holistic approach for the Asia-Pacific region. By passing requirements and appropriating funds for studies, reviews, and reports from the new team, the legislative branch can ensure the administration’s Asia initiatives are developed in a coherent and coordinated manner. The National Defense Authorization Act is the most typical vehicle for such studies and requirements, but other forms of legislation may also be used.

Charting Defense Strategy Toward
the Asia-Pacific

Annual Asia Strategy Study

The U.S. government has not issued a single document that articulates its strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. While existing legislation requires broad quadrennial national security reviews or specialized reports on the region’s maritime environment, these inform U.S. policy toward Asia but do not illuminate more than isolated facets of it. Given that foreign policy strategy received scant attention on the campaign trail, a more holistic, unified Asia strategy document is especially important. Congress should require an annual public document in which the Pentagon and other agencies that set regional strategy articulate their overarching goals for Asia and assess progress on the prior year’s goals. This document should also assess China’s responses to American policy in Asia – as well as serve as a useful signaling device for regional audiences. 

Global Force Posture Review and Demonstration Exercise

During the campaign, then-candidate Trump called for a 350-ship navy, which would imply a significant role for a larger naval presence in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, 2017 NDAA language requires a force posture review for the Asia-Pacific region. Yet a fully global review – one that presumably acknowledges the need to retain substantial forward forces in Asia, assesses scenarios that necessitates a larger navy, determines whether existing rotational agreements and platforms meet DoD needs, and what tradeoffs would ensue worldwide – is needed for adequate planning by the joint forces. The administration should consequently conduct a new annual exercise that demonstrates the capability and the capacity at its disposal from access arrangements and assets.

Annual Assessment of Security Assistance

The 2017 NDAA does much to begin consolidating and simplifying the complex patchwork of authorities and funding streams that govern security assistance programs inside the Department of Defense. During this transitional period, Congress should use reporting requirements, studies, or incisive inquiries at related hearings to ensure the Pentagon is working to explicitly coordinate security assistance programs with strategic goals. Efforts at such coordination could including working with Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) countries to develop their own plans and proposals for maritime domain awareness; enlisting regional armies in maritime domain awareness development efforts; encouraging near-term cooperative projects such as coast guard academies; coordinating the MSI with International Military Education and Training and Foreign Military Financing programs; and it could incorporate lessons from past successful programs like the Partnership for Peace.

As the Trump administration takes office, it will have little time to waste as it develops a defense approach to Asia. China will surely not pause its military buildup and Xi Jinping will continue to advance an assertive foreign policy, even if it takes new forms.  As the region and the world watch Washington’s approach, Congress must help to shape it. The geopolitical stakes are simply too high for it to do otherwise.

  1. Mira Rapp-Hooper, Patrick Cronin, Harry Krejsa, and Hannah Suh, “Counterbalance: Red Teaming the Rebalance in the Asia-Pacific,” Center for a New American Security, November 2016, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/counterbalance-red-teaming-the-rebalance-in-the-asia-pacific.
  2. The Federalist 75, Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-79.
  3. Toni Johnson, “Congress and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 24, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/united-states/congress-us-foreign-policy/p29871.


  • Mira Rapp-Hooper

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Mira Rapp-Hooper is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is formerly a Fellow with the CSIS Asia Program and Director of the CSIS...

  • Harry Krejsa

    Former Fellow, Center for a New American Security

    Harry Krejsa is a former fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His research areas included the intersection of foreign policy and middle class economics, Ch...

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