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Donald Trump’s Defense Plans and Their Implications for Asia

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to be sworn in, international observers and his fellow countrymen are trying to understand the complex and unpredictable dynamics which are characteristic of American presidential elections. For security analysts the world over, political rhetoric matters little when compared to stated defense plans which are deliberated by a diverse array of policymakers, practitioners and strategists. To say that Donald Trump does not have a defense policy plan might sound plausible.

However, close examination of a column by former US Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, for one, suggests the new President-elect actually does have elaborate defense plans in place as a priority.

This piece offers insight into the less-highlighted segments of Trump’s election campaigning which is based on Wynne’s commentary for Breaking Defense. Despite his controversial past, the author has credibility as an experienced civil servant in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush presidency.

The US Navy has 272 ready-to-deploy warships. The US Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment (FSA) indicates plans to increase the figure to about 315 by early 2020. Trump, however, has made it clear that he plans to increase the number of active warships to 350 to add “teeth” to US’ so-called “re-balancing strategy” in the Asia Pacific region. If these plans are put in place, the US Navy and Marine Corps will engage in increased posturing in the Pacific region, much to the dismay of China. It is clear that this signaling would be incomplete without the support and assistance of US’ critical allies in the region, mainly Japan, India and Australia. This will have implications in the mid to long term for South Asia as the US Navy will be cautious on how it intends to actually deploy these new ships if and when they are commissioned.

Donald Trump also plans to increase the US Marine Corps from 27 to 36 battalions, which apparently indicates the importance of amphibious warfare development which provides the necessary multi-functional complement to the traditional naval force power. The US is already in good standing with Japan, Australia and India on the terms of amphibious operations to keep tabs on China’s growing Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities in the South China Sea; though it does merit adding that India is not necessarily in agreement. However, Indian defense planners are interested in the benefits of amphibious operations, as the recent visit to the US amphibious assault ship USS Bataan by the first ever delegation of Indian National Defense Management Course illustrates. We can expect a greater Indo-US-Japan-Australia military quadrilateral in the Asia Pacific where the maritime component will play the central role. In addition, now that China is building a deep sea port in Sri Lanka, it will be interesting to note how this enlarged naval presence will factor in for all stakeholders by 2020.

The US-Indian Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), will result in a larger US air force frequenting Indian bases including the strategically-important Andaman & Nicobar Islands which provide the perfect watch tower over Chinese air and naval activities. Since a larger portion of US military cooperation in the Asia Pacific region will involve naval and air forces, we can expect China’s assertive air patrols in contested territories facing greater scrutiny by US forces. An increased jet inventory can also give US combatant commanders the option to increase the jet fleet in South Korea and Japan.

As far as ground forces are concerned, US President-elect Trump announced raising the number of troops from 490,000 to 540,000 active servicemen. This would entail greater overseas deployments especially in Iraq (counter-ISIS support to the Iraqi military) and Africa (counter-terrorism support). It is yet unclear whether troop levels in Europe will be increased, since Trump continues to assert that Russia is not the “large threat” that many in NATO have asserted for so long. However, it will ultimately be the net assessments by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff that will determine whether or not deployments in Europe will need to be increased.

It is unclear what Trump’s reasoning is behind the increased troop size. He has long been critical of US wars in Iraq and the long involvement in Afghanistan, however he took a U-turn on his earlier opposition to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2015 on the grounds that the Taliban and other groups pose severe terrorist threats to US interests. As the war lingers on, Trump can be expected to wrap up US presence in Afghanistan as prolonging it further will add to the US economy’s existing woes; he has already announced that his primary focus will be reviving the American economy and the creation of new jobs to “Make America Great Again.” Considering Trump’s differences with NATO, the possibility of a drawdown in Afghanistan does not seem too improbable.

Donald Trump’s defense plans clearly indicate that Asia will dominate the Trump administration’s focus. His admiration for Vladimir Putin and disappointment with NATO will most likely keep Asia on his foreign policy agenda. The waterways in the Western Pacific play a critical role in US maritime trade and since Trump aspires to increase American product exports, he will definitely need assurance that no nation has a hegemonic presence in Asia.

New Delhi is Washington’s preferred Chinese watchdog in South Asia. Indian and American maritime forces are expected to exert dominance in regional waters which will affect India’s relations with Russia. Will a pro-Trump Moscow brush these concerns under the carpet as long as Eastern Europe is not turned into a BMD zone? Time will tell.

Foreseeable trends suggest that India will become more significant to US foreign policy in Asia and it will be uncomfortable for both Pakistan and China. It is not an exaggeration to infer that this scenario could result in another nuclear arms race in Asia thereby upsetting the already-delicate power equilibrium.

One question that remains unanswered: since Donald Trump wants to reverse the long-held policy of outsourcing jobs to cheap markets in Asia, what benefit will Asian capitals have by participating in an American alliance against a rising China? Donald Trump will really need to analyze the possible ramifications.