The Curious Case of Trump’s Asia Policy

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Written by Harry H. Sa.

In the aftermath of his surprise election victory, now faced with the realities of a Trump presidency, the Asia Pacific scrambled to understand his foreign policy. In a sharp departure from his predecessor, Donald Trump challenged longstanding features of US Asia policy such as the Japanese and South Korean alliances, threatened the region with trade wars and protectionism, and assumed an unequivocally confrontational approach to China.

ASEAN is signalling it is once again ready to tackle difficult issues and willing to become an active participant in solving extra-regional affairs.

The Trump administration walked back, qualified, or outright changed its mind over many of these stances. However, the recent standoff with North Korea showed that Trump is not afraid to stick to some of his more worrisome campaign promises, reigniting anxieties throughout the region. Strangely enough, Trump’s missteps and unorthodox methods are unexpectedly creating a situation that is not altogether terrible for the United States. If he plays his cards right, he just might be able to salvage what has been a dismal first hundred days.

Trump’s Modus Operandi

If God is in the detail, the divinity of Donald Trump is certainly suspect. Donald Trump’s White House deliberately steers clear of the minutiae of foreign policy, content on letting the lower levels of government handle the bulk of day to day decisions. When it comes to war making, he delegates much of the decision-making to his generals. Having a hands-off approach to the Defence Department is not the worst idea ever conceived, but the Trump administration’s haphazard attempt at cutting the Pentagon loose is creating troubling gaps in the chain of command and leaving the White House dangerously ignorant of major military operations.

At the press briefing after the US dropped MOAB, the largest nonnuclear ordnance in its arsenal, onto Afghanistan, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer only offered a vague explanation about denying terrorists “operating space.” When asked for further elaboration by three different reporters, he responded he was not willing “to get into the details right now” and deflected all three questions to the Defence Department. It was not so much a case of willingness to,  than it was an inability to, respond, stemming from ignorance. The case of the missing USS Carl Vinson is another clear example of the state of disarray plaguing the administration.

Due to the lack of coordination between institutions, the lack of a guiding regional strategy, and a lack of interest in the finer points of policymaking, Trumpian foreign policy will be reactive, ad hoc, and piecemeal. It will also be driven by crises and contingencies. Responses will be aggressive, often militaristic, and full of bravado. This has been the pattern thus far, and it was on full display throughout the tensions with North Korea.

The Silver Lining: The Taming of the Wayward Ally and a Maturing Asia

Amidst the instability wrought by Trump’s Asia policy, or lack thereof, have been a few counterintuitively positive developments. The Philippines has inched back towards the United States. After insulting the US all the way to the presidency, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has visibly softened his tone. In March 2017, Duterte blamed the US for not acting sooner against Chinese island building. Though still combative, it was an indirect admission that the Philippines requires the United States to deal with China. Soon thereafter, before talks with Beijing over the South China Sea, the Duterte government adopted a much friendlier posture towards the US.

Secondly, the region is exhibiting remarkable maturity in this time of uncertainty. Asian states are proactively looking, at least temporarily, to assume the mantle of leadership while waiting for US policy to materialize. Japanese Prime Minister Abe has personally met with Trump twice since November 2016 and began executing its own regional strategy: a pivot to Southeast Asia. Japan announced it will be sending its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea and will join the annual US-Japan-Indian trilateral naval exercise, Malabar 2017. It has also strengthened defence ties with Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

In Southeast Asia, while the US’ most fractured ties have momentarily stabilised, the rest of ASEAN is looking to strengthen itself as a way to keep the United States engaged. Voices calling for a more unified ASEAN, specifically with the intention of keeping the US interested, are growing. At the time of writing, ASEAN announced that it will feature North Korea and the South China Sea on the agenda of this year’s annual summit. ASEAN is signalling it is once again ready to tackle difficult issues and willing to become an active participant in solving extra-regional affairs.

Trump’s Golden Opportunity

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama tried to motivate Asian partners to shoulder more responsibility of upholding the regional order. It might have been that Obama’s rebalance to Asia was a tad bit too eager, a bit too overzealous in acknowledging the importance of the region. Knowing that the US was not going anywhere, there may have been a pinch of complacency in the region.

This is no longer the case. Trump has reintroduced that chaotic element of Bush-era unilateralism that threatens to undermine the interests of Asian states. In hopes of restraining the US, Asian allies and partners are attempting to change the strategic calculus so that resumption of stable American leadership would be the most rational and beneficial choice. Trump now has a region that is eager to respond to and accommodate American policies.

The first crucial step is for the Trump administration to assemble a competent and capable Asia team, especially in the State and Defence departments. This will help prevent cases of confusion like the MOAB operation and the USS Carl Vinson from recurring. Not only do these embarrassing episodes expose a government’s ineptitude, it can lead to dangerous miscalculation between the United States and its adversaries. Second, seasoned Asia hands will be better able to formulate a strategy that will put the US back in the driver’s seat. This is also important if Trump wants productive visits when attends the US-ASEAN summit and the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, the APEC Summit in Vietnam, and reciprocates Xi’s visit to the US.

Harry H. Sa is a research analyst with the United States Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) based in the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He tweets at @bruinharry. Image credit: CC by Gage Skidmore/Flickr



Categories: Asia, United States

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