Tyrone Siu / REUTERS On board the USS Peleliu, Hong Kong, April 2013.

Deciphering Trump's Asia Policy

What "America First" Will Mean for Regional Order

Scholars who claim to know with any certainty how U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy will crystalize are engaging in tenuous prophecy. As they and the United States’ international partners strain to determine the contours of his plans, however, there are at least two groups of source material on which they can draw. The first is Trump’s statements on foreign policy during his campaign; the second is the writings of his closest national security advisers.

When it comes to the president-elect’s approach to Asia, these two sets of evidence point in different directions: one toward retrenchment and the other toward unilateralism. Yet these divergent visions have something important in common. Neither calls for a foreign policy centered around the system of alliances, rules, and norms that have underpinned the United States’ leadership of the international order since 1945. Together with the deep uncertainty surrounding Trump’s objectives for Asia and the tools he has suggested he will use to pursue them, the absence of principled and predictable U.S. leadership could lead to a destabilizing shift in the regional balance of power in the near term.

A television broadcasts a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Seoul, September 2016.

A television broadcasts a debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Seoul, September 2016.

READING THE TEA LEAVES

Foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Asia, played a relatively minor role in Trump’s presidential campaign. When the topic of U.S. policy toward Asia did arise, Trump tended to use the opportunity to underscore the “America first” worldview he adopted from the isolationist Charles Lindberg, railing against trade deals and promising economic retaliation against those who subvert U.S. interests. Indeed, during his candidacy, Trump appeared to see Asian states mostly through an economic lens, often as rule-breakers deserving punishment.

Like Hillary Clinton, Trump opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his campaign. But he also assailed free trade deals more broadly, vowing to upend a number of the United States’ international economic ties. Trump promised to label China a currency manipulator during his first 100 days in office—a threat that may not carry meaningful consequences and is also outdated, since Beijing no longer keeps its currency artificially low. More troubling is Trump’s pledge to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. Such a policy would start a trade war, lead to a massive recession, eliminate millions of U.S. jobs, and damage the economies of some close U.S. allies, including Japan and South Korea. Trump’s campaign advisers have since scaled back the size of the proposed tariff, but none have attempted to unwind it completely.

When it comes to security issues in Asia, Trump does not appear to have well-developed views but has consistently favored economic punishment as a foreign-policy tool. He has said that U.S. trade policy could force China to retreat in the South China Sea and has argued that the United States should use economic leverage to pressure China to rein in North Korea—a “problem” that he has said Beijing could solve “with one phone call.” Trump appears to believe that his support for a tariff on Chinese goods comports with his hopes for improved relations with Beijing.

Countries that have partnered with the United States but also maintain close ties to China may tilt toward Beijing.

Trump has displayed deep antipathy toward longstanding U.S. commitments in Asia, including those to nuclear nonproliferation (he has effectively encouraged Japan and South Korea to pursue nuclear weapons of their own) and the security of regional allies. On several occasions, he has called on Japan and South Korea to pay the full cost of the U.S. military’s deployments within their borders, stating that if they failed to do so, the United States could draw down its troops. Concerns about burden-sharing in U.S. alliances are nothing new, but Trump’s criticisms have worried the United States’ Asian allies because of what they betray: Trump was apparently unaware of the fact that Japan and South Korea are the least expensive places in the world (including the United States) to base U.S. forces because of Tokyo and Seoul’s financial contributions; he demonstrated no interest in the economic and strategic value the United States’ relationships with those countries bestow; and he did not appear to respect U.S. allies enough to discuss burden-sharing privately after the election instead of publicly during the campaign.

In short, Trump’s Asia policy reflected a startling mélange of neo-isolationism and neo-Jacksonianism, along with a nearly doctrinal devotion to unpredictability and a tendency to favor economic punishment as a foreign-policy tool. Trump’s closest Asia advisers, however, appear to endorse a starkly different approach. 

Members of the People's Liberation Army at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 2012.

Members of the People's Liberation Army in Beijing, March 2012.

THE COMPANY TRUMP KEEPS

The president-elect’s Asia advisers have tended to be deeply suspicious of China and have supported a muscular, unilateral U.S. foreign policy in the region. Writing the day before the election in Foreign Policy, Alex Grey and Peter Navarro, both Trump advisers, articulated their candidate’s vision for Asia—one they likened to Ronald Reagan’s appeal for “peace through strength.” They called for an end to the defense budget sequester, a massive expansion of the U.S. Navy to 350 ships, and a stronger military presence in Asia than the current administration has provided under its “rebalance” to the region. Grey and Navarro reiterated Trump’s skepticism toward international trade’s central role in U.S. foreign policy and made clear that U.S. allies would “respectfully” be asked to pay more for their defense. In a departure from Trump’s penchant for retrenchment, however, they offered a primacist’s vision for the United States' presence in the Asia–Pacific, by which Washington’s sustained military preponderance would limit the apparent threats posed by China.

Since the election, Trump has spoken by phone with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and has reiterated the United States’ defense commitments to South Korea and Japan. (He also met with Abe in New York on November 17.) Those conversations appear to have proceeded smoothly. The real question for the United States’ treaty allies, however, is not whether Trump will abrogate Washington’s security commitments; that would be met with intense opposition from Congress, the military, and civil servants and is unlikely. Instead, the question is whether Trump will drain U.S. alliances of their meaning by reducing the United States’ cooperation with its partners to the extent that they feel they have been abandoned.

Trump’s first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on November 14, also left much unanswered. The two leaders pledged to cooperate and strengthen ties, but the president-elect’s campaign positions have probably left the Chinese wary. Taken together with Trump’s skepticism of U.S. alliances, these overtures to China give Washington’s Asian allies reason to fear that the next U.S. president might pursue a great power condominium with Beijing: a kind of G2 arrangement in which the interests of smaller states would be circumvented or discarded. Trump’s penchant for China-bashing and his advisers’ embrace of unilateralism may make this seem unlikely, but there is no reason why the Trump administration could not punish China economically and build up the United States’ military presence in the region while also ceding the initiative on a number of security issues to Beijing. Of course, Trump may change his positions on China and U.S. alliances once he takes office. But even if a full-blown U.S.–China condominium is unlikely in practice, the fact that U.S. allies have reason to fear one matters a great deal. It suggests that Trump’s mercurial statements have already damaged the United States’ credibility.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses members of the media after meeting with Donald Trump, New York, November 2016.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the media after meeting with Donald Trump, New York, November 2016.

ASIA AS AFTERTHOUGHT?

As a number of foreign-policy scholars have noted, it will probably take months for the new administration to develop a strategy for Asia. Given Trump’s devotion to unpredictability, he might not craft such a strategy at all: he could instead pick and choose from a neo-Jacksonian, unilateralist buffet, deciding what “America first” means as circumstances change.

If the positive features of Trump’s vision for Asia are still unclear, its gaps are obvious. The statements of Trump and his advisers have not mentioned international institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, nor have they raised human rights or the rule of law as foreign policy principles. Trump and his advisers have offered scant indication that they believe U.S. alliances are more than transactional or that the United States should cooperate closely with Asian states instead of periodically thrusting itself on the region as its interests dictate. In short, the president-elect and his advisers have given few signs that they intend to play a constructive role in the international order: the web of treaties, regimes, norms, and laws that the United States has helped build since 1945. If traditional conservatives end up filling enough posts in the Trump administration, they may help ameliorate this deficit. But that would not change the fact that for the first time since 1945, the U.S. president-elect appears to have little interest in making positive contributions to the system that has sustained the United States’ global leadership.  

If the United States fails to uphold the international order, it could trigger several adverse developments in the balance of power in Asia. First, countries that have partnered with the United States but also maintain close ties to China may tilt toward Beijing. This tendency is likely to be strongest in Southeast Asia, where many states hope to reap more benefits from their economic ties with China; Malaysia and the Philippines have already begun to follow this logic. The states that comprise ASEAN might conclude that Washington is retrenching diplomatically and institutionally, if not militarily, and cease to stand up to China on issues such as island-building and the development of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. The United States could thus lose the political partners its upgraded military would have the power to protect.  

Given their longstanding reliance on U.S. security commitments, Washington’s treaty allies will likely cautiously cooperate with the next administration. As the details of Trump’s approach to U.S. alliances become more clear, they may choose to increase their security independence, ramping up their defense spending and military cooperation with one another. They may also try to plug some of the holes left by the United States’ diminished role in areas such as security assistance to Southeast Asian states. Even if Trump assiduously courts longstanding U.S. treaty allies, however, he faces an uphill battle: the damage done by his and his advisers’ critical statements and endorsements of unilateralism and unpredictability will not be easy to repair.

Trump could pick and choose from a neo-Jacksonian, unilateralist buffet, deciding what “America first” means as circumstances change.

The best hope for China is that the president-elect will prove to be as transactional as he suggested he would be during the campaign, willing to back away from U.S. partnerships and cut deals with Beijing. The worst case is that Trump will advance unpredictable military policies and vengeful economic ones, triggering instability in the region. China will certainly continue its own military buildup and seek to consolidate its recent political gains in its relationships with Malaysia, the Philippines, and other regional states. But it is unlikely to take provocative actions in the early days of Trump’s administration—by, for example, declaring an air-defense identification zone or seizing another reef in the South China Sea—so long as the prospect of a punishing response from Washington acts as a short-term deterrent. Beijing will probably carefully assess the new administration before making any moves.

Although the concrete details of Trump’s strategy for Asia are scant, a few things seem clear. An uncertain future awaits a region that has become accustomed to principled and mostly predictable U.S. leadership. In this new environment, friends and challengers alike should not be blamed for concluding that they cannot count on Washington as they have in the past. The United States’ allies should prepare to take tough stands against U.S. policies when necessary and to hold Washington accountable for its commitments. Internationalists in both political parties will seek to reassure the United States’ partners of its continued commitment, but Trump’s rise and stunning victory tell a different story.

There is a painful irony to be found in the likely consequences of Trump’s election for Asia. The Obama administration’s rebalance, despite its flaws, sought to demonstrate to the region that China’s rise did not spell U.S. decline. Trump’s victory and his team’s embryonic “America first” foreign policy could convince Asian states to give up on Washington. But these remain no more than informed prognostications at a moment of epochal political upheaval. One hopes that they are incorrect: Asia is too important to the United States, and the United States to Asia, for it to be otherwise.

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