WASHINGTON (CN) – Railing against President Barack Obama’s Asia policy, experts and members of the House expressed high hopes Tuesday on President-elect Donald Trump’s apparent plans for a shake-up.
The hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific comes on the heels of Trump’s break with four decades of U.S. policy on Taiwan when he accepted a 10-minute call on Friday from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., praised Trump’s America-first policy at the hearing, echoing his reaction Monday on Fox News that the phone call was “terrific.”
“Our goal has been to hopefully make things better for the United States of America,” Rohrabacher told the committee. “Some people think our goal is to focus on making it a better world. That certainly is something positive.”
Rohrabacher added, however, that the perception “of what’s good for the whole world is not necessarily what’s good for the United States of America.”
The call between Trump and Ing-wen rattled China, which views the island as a rebellious province and claims sovereignty over it. China and Taiwan, which functions like an independent state, split after the communists prevailed in the Chinese civil war.
Ing-wen, 60, became Taiwan’s first female president in May as a member of the Democratic Progressive party, which supports Taiwan’s independence.
Though China lodged an official complaint with the United States about the Trump call, sending shock-waves through diplomatic circles, the 2049 Institute’s Kelly Currie scoffed at the “apoplectic pearl-clutching” that ensued.
“The manner in which we have allowed diplomatic fictions – such as those that control our engagement with the democratically elected government in Taiwan – to dictate key aspects of U.S. foreign policy is both fundamentally absurd and ultimately counterproductive,” Currie, a senior fellow with the institute, told the committee Tuesday.
“I personally welcome some fresh thinking about how we order our affairs in the region, particularly if it does not involve reflexive genuflections to avoid tantrums by Beijing’s unelected dictators,” she added.
Currie was part of a four-member panel of think-tank experts – all critical of President Obama’s Asia policy – assembled by the subcommittee to assess the “pivot to Asia.”
During opening remarks, subcommittee chairman Rep. Matt Salmon called the surprise over the phone call an unnecessary distraction.
“The fact is that we are economically and militarily engaged with Taiwan as directed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and a phone call between principles should not garner such outrage,” said Salmon, an Arizona Republican who is retiring at the end of this year.
President Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act into law in 1980 after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with Beijing, and after he unilaterally annulled a defense treaty that had helped secure Taiwan from a Chinese invasion after the civil war.
The United States hasn’t had official diplomatic relations with Taiwan since.
China meantime has become the world’s second-strongest military power.
National Bureau of Asian Research president Richard Ellings warned that Obama’s Asia pivot and preceding policies have failed to prepare the United States for the challenges China will pose.
Ellings posited several scenarios that could unfold in the wake of increased international tensions and polarization.
“Have we contemplated facing some type of Sino-Russian or Sino-Russian-North Korean-Pakistani coalition if, for example, hostilities were to break out on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait, or in the Sea of Japan,” he asked.
“I see no peacetime U.S. strategy built on a tough-minded global assessment – a strategy that, if pursued, might reduce the chances of our facing such coalitions and help contain any hostilities to the commons.”
Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets Program at New America, said the Obama administration has also failed to address U.S. dependence on China for everyday goods, like drugs, chemical and electronics.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership – a multilateral trade deal from which Trump has vowed to withdraw – would have given China greater industrial capacity, he said.
“Extreme concentration in China of vital industrial capacity exposes the United States to coercion by China, and may actually increase the likelihood of conflict by tempting Chinese leaders to take risks they would not otherwise take,” Lynn added.
As industrial capacities in China become increasingly concentrated, Lynn proposed the possibility that China could impose sanctions on the United States if tensions between the countries escalate.
“What would the United States do in the event of such a cut-off of vital supplies,” he asked. “Would we try to tough it out? Would we cede to Chinese demands? Would we escalate through the use of cyber or military power?”
Lynn said no government agency has undertaken an in-depth study of U.S. industrial dependence on China.
Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had also opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included 12 countries from the Pacific Rim but not China.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., asked the panel to talk about the dangers of developing an isolationist policy to Asian markets, which are some of the largest economic markets in the world.
Derek Scissors with the American Enterprise Institute responded that the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Indonesia have the fastest-growing economies.
“If we want opportunities for our workers beyond the American market – the American market’s the most important in the world – but if we want to add to that, the Asia-Pacific is where it’s at,” Scissors said.
Asserting that the Trans-Pacific Partnership was as much about geopolitics as it was about economic benefits, Lynn suggested starting with a more simplified approach – bilateral trade agreements, one country at a time.
Scissors said he did not fault the Obama administration for trying the partnership, but called it too big of an undertaking to try to bring so many disparate countries into the fold. Effort should be spent to understand why it did not work, and why both major candidates did not support the deal.
“My response is that it couldn’t deliver economic benefits,” he said.
The panelists also suggested taking a tougher line with China to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program, and to stop Chinese theft of American intellectual property.