U.S. Foreign Policy toward East Asia: What to expect from a Trump Presidency

by Giuseppe Spatafora


Many regard the election of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States as evidence of Washington’s failure to remain a resident power in Asia.[i] The Obama administration pledged to enhance American commitment to the Western Pacific rim through the “Pivot to Asia” strategy: the relocation of American diplomatic, military and economic resources to Asia, given the economic and strategic importance of the region.[ii] The Pivot was the symbol of a strong U.S. commitment to stability and liberalism in the world. Then, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, America’s role as Pacific power has been strongly questioned.[iii] Candidate Trump promised to refocus on internal affairs, giving priority to the American middle class that feels affected by globalization and left behind by Washington (under the slogans “America First” and “Make America Great Again”). [iv] In foreign affairs, Trump’s program has been likened to a strategy of “offshore balancing”: the United States should progressively withdraw its forces from areas where allies are in the position to provide for their own security.[v] Trump argued that U.S. foreign policy priorities should be reduced to a few core national interests: the fight against terrorism, renegotiation of trade deals and a new emphasis on America’s military might.[vi] As for the Asia-Pacific region, Trump argued for an overhaul of current U.S. foreign policy:

  1. Repudiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 which would bring together twelve major Asia-Pacific economies – excluding China – in the biggest free-trade area to date. Trump puts the TPP on top of the list of multilateral “bad” deals that cause a hemorrhage of American jobs overseas and allow U.S. trade partners to take advantage of America. Trump has vowed to withdraw from TPP on his first day in office.[vii]
  2. Toughening American stance vis-à-vis China in both economic and military terms. Trump accused China of dumping exports and of devaluing its currency, the Yuan. At the same time, he criticized the previous administration for adopting a weak and indulgent position vis-à-vis Beijing. Thus, he promised that his administration would bring trade cases against China in U.S. courts and at the World Trade Organization, as well as designate China a “currency manipulator”, and impose heavy tariffs on Chinese goods.[viii] A further promise is to respond to China’s major military expansionism in the East and South China Seas through a larger deployment of troops and navy ships.
  3. Renegotiating alliance bargains so that American partners contribute to their own defense. The U.S. has maintained its role of hegemon and security provider through a network of alliances (with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan, among others). Trump repeatedly criticized U.S. allies in Asia during the campaign, complaining that the United States pays too much to defend Japan and South Korea. The issue of burden sharing is not new to foreign-policy debates, especially with regards to Europe. But with North Korea achieving nuclear capability, Trump’s remarks have been regarded as welcoming an arms race in Northeast Asia: “It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time.”[ix]

These three points suggest that a Trump presidency would carry out a major withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific region, abandoning its strategy of deep engagement.[x] After the unexpected victory in November’s election, however, new questions have been asked about the overall trajectory of Trump’s foreign policy vis-à-vis East Asia: is the new administration going to significantly withdraw the United States from the Western Pacific, given the strategic importance of the region? Was America’s “Pacific Century” an adventure limited to the Obama years, which the new presidency will erase, or is it the slogan of a long-term trend that Trump will uphold?

The Trump administration will operate in a scenario marked by an increased Chinese military assertiveness in its near abroad, accompanied by its strong diplomatic and economic power, unresolved territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, the North Korean nuclear breakthrough and a political-economic balance which no longer overwhelmingly favors the U.S.[xi] The Obama administration responded to the new geopolitical challenges through diplomatic endeavor and multilateral economic engagement, in the form of the TPP. American allies in Asia view the TPP as a symbol of whether the U.S. is committed to the East Asia region: Edward Allen from the Council on Foreign Relations says, “If it fails, it will be seen as a significant U.S. retreat from engagement with Asia.”[xii] Trump manifested his staunch opposition to multilateral free trade agreements, which are to be substituted with bilateral deals in which the U.S. can show its ‘muscles’. Given that the TPP without the U.S. participation is doomed, some analysts have concluded that America is preparing to disengage from the Asia-Pacific.[xiii]

This conclusion fails to take into account the U.S. long-term military commitment to East Asia that the new administration will maintain. The United States retains a strong naval and troop presence in the Western Pacific since the end of WWII. Trump rightly points out that American military forces have been reduced during the Obama administration, and in the Asia-Pacific the reduction of forces happened during China’s construction of a military arsenal in the South China Sea. President Obama relied on economic and soft power to balance China: Ash Carter, Obama’s defense secretary, asserted that passing TPP is as “important to me as another aircraft carrier.”[xiv] While America increased both its economic and diplomatic presence, a “gradual erosion of U.S. air and naval dominance in the western Pacific” took place.[xv] The U.S. naval force is now made up of 274 ships, the smallest since World War I. Democrats and Republicans from the National Defense Panel have expressed concern at the Navy’s reduced size. Analyst Seth Cropsey reckons that these cuts in troops and ships are reducing America’s deterrent power and undermining its ability to face off challenges, especially in East Asian shores.[xvi]

A Chinese magazine with a cover story featuring U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Under Trump, we will likely see a reversed trend: the U.S. forces in East Asia will increase, replacing Obama’s economic-diplomatic effort with a renewed reliance on hard power. Trump’s declared plan is to expand the size of the Navy to 350 ships, a fleet in line with Cropsey’s suggestions and with the up to 346 ships endorsed by the bipartisan National Defense Panel.[xvii] The plan to expand American military presence overseas suggests that the United States under Trump will remain deeply involved in East Asian affairs.

The perspective increase in military commitment has consequences for the status of American alliances in Asia. South Korea and Japan proved very worried after Trump’s remarks that Asian allies should provide for their own security and defense. Japan’s President Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump two weeks after his victory, on behalf of the concerned American allies. Mr. Abe afterward said their meeting at Trump Tower convinced him that the President-elect was a leader “whom I can have great confidence in.”[xviii] This reassuring answer hints that Trump’s words during the campaign were more extreme than his true intentions: the United States will remain committed to the protection of its allies in Asia. Although we might expect an increase in the allies’ defense budget (which has been taking place for years, regardless of the American election’s outcome), the prospect of an increased U.S. military presence under Trump will reassure Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra. Trump’s advisors Peter Navarro and Alexander Gray called U.S. alliances in Asia “bedrocks of stability in the region” and wrote that “the Trump naval program will reassure our allies that the United States remains committed in the long term to its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia.”[xix]

Not all U.S. partners were satisfied with the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to Asia. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte harshly criticized Obama and in 2016 assumed a pro-China, anti-U.S. position. The Philippines’ bandwagoning happened after an international ruling that condemned China for its illicit territorial claims in the South China Sea, as Washington was unable to provide credible security guarantees to the challenge of China’s military expansionism. This led one analyst to observe: “American allies and partners in the region have been disheartened by a foreign policy that has veered from feckless to mendacious.”[xx] This is probably an exaggerated critique of Obama’s Asian policy, but it does reflect the rising level of threat in East Asia to which the U.S. responded only diplomatically, without reassuring all its allies. A militarily active United States under Trump will perhaps recover the strained relations with the Philippines.

Major Japanese newspapers after Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.

U.S.-China relations will be the decisive aspect of U.S. foreign policy for the stability the Asia-Pacific. China has been the main foreign policy target of Trump’s campaign speeches, more than Mexico or ISIS: “China is waging an economic war on us” was a typical slogan. Under his presidency, the United States will likely adopt a tougher stance in trade relations with Beijing.[xxi] But rather than filing more reports to the WTO against China’s alleged dumping, which the Dispute Settlement mechanisms seldom considers, the new Presidency will seek to lower corporate tax and renegotiate trade deals, boosting American competition against China in Asia and around the world. The President-elect has already escalated tensions with China not on economic, but on diplomatic issues: he violated a long-standing agreement on the non-recognition of Taiwan as an independent state by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.[xxii] Beijing, already annoyed by Tsai’s rejection of the “One China” paradigm, accuses Washington of violating its promise to officially treat Taiwan as a rebel province of China. Trump reacted to the allegation by challenging the “One China” policy, a paradigm which has been followed by U.S. administrations in more than two decades: “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”[xxiii]

Trump’s foreign policy strategy will likely be one of offshore balancing, which as previously said calls from a U.S. withdrawal from areas in which no clear hegemon is in sight. Given the rise of China, however, prominent advocates of offshore balancing believe that the U.S. should remain engaged in Asia-Pacific to contain the only potential rival to their power in Asia and beyond.[xxiv] Trump’s campaign website stated that he would “discourage Chinese adventurism that imperils American interests in Asia and shows our strength as we begin renegotiating our trading relationship with China. A strong military presence will be a clear signal to China and other nations in Asia and around the world that America is back in the global leadership business.”[xxv] Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, seems to agree on a more aggressive U.S. posture against China. As he told his Senate confirmation hearing in response to a question on the South China Sea, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”[xxvi]

Trump’s call for a tougher American stance vis-à-vis Beijing risks worsening relations with China at a time when China is stronger than ever.[xxvii] China’s military and economic power can now challenge American hegemony, and substitute the U.S. system of bilateral alliances with a Beijing-based multilateral regional order. Given the patterns of hegemonic confrontation observed in the past, questions arise whether relations between the two giants will reach the critical point of destabilization for the Asia-Pacific region.[xxviii] Beijing already sent a warning sign to the U.S.: few days after the Trump-Tsai call, Chinese seized and then returned an underwater glider from a U.S. Navy ocean survey ship. The episode testifies that China is there, closely scrutinizing other moves.[xxix] Risks of a military confrontation are still low: China has maintained a cautious approach with new American Presidents, especially those about which it is uncertain. During 2017 Beijing will probably adopt a “wait and see” approach vis-à-vis Washington. But the ghost of great power confrontation looms on the horizon.

When asked about the future of U.S. foreign policy in Asia, Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy commented that “the topic is good, but the timing is bad.”[xxx] . Trump’s first 100 days in office will provide for a more accurate assessment of the President’s trajectory. But the signals we have so far clearly indicate that the United States will not pull back from the Western Pacific rim: its presence will be stronger than during the Obama years in military terms, and while trade relations will turn from multilateralism to bilateralism, Trump will not underestimate America’s strong economic interests in East Asia. Long-term alliances will remain in place, as the United States promises to stand up against China. The United States has been a Pacific power since well before Obama took office: it is a long-term trend that will still continue under President Trump.


Works Cited:

[i] Hunter Marston, “Is the United States Really a Pacific Power?”, The National Interest. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-united-states-really-pacific-power-18658
[ii] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”, Foreign Policy. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century
[iii] Both major candidates showed criticism for the TPP, also Hillary Clinton who previously praised it as “the gold standard of trade deals”. See “The Future of U.S. Policy Toward Asia”, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/the-future-us-policy-toward-asia-implications-the-2016-elections-for-economic-and-security
[iv] “Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech”, Time website, 16 June 2015. http://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/
[v] Giovanni Grevi, “Lost in Transition? US Foreign Policy from Obama to Trump,” p. 5. European Policy Centre. http://aei.pitt.edu/82224/1/pub_7240_lostintransition.pdf
[vi] “Lost in Transition,” p. 10.
[vii] “Donald Trump Outlines Policy Plan for First 100 Days on Office,” CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/21/politics/donald-trump-outlines-policy-plan-for-first-100-days/
[viii] “The Next Commander in Chief,” Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/campaign2016/
[ix] Kacie Miura and Jessica Chen Weiss, “Will China Test Trump? Lessons from Past Campaigns and Elections,” The Washington Quarterly, p. 15. https://twq.elliott.gwu.edu/sites/twq.elliott.gwu.edu/files/downloads/TWQ_Winter2017_Miura-Weiss_0.pdf
[x] “Lost in Transition,” p. 5.
[xi] Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, “The Changing Geopolitics of East Asia,” Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/stapletonroy_geopoliticsofeastasia.pdf
[xii] James McBride, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S. Trade Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/trade/trans-pacific-partnership-us-trade-policy/p36422
[xiii] “Is the United States Really a Pacific Power?”.
[xiv] “Donald Trump’s Peace through Strength: Vision for the Asia Pacific,” Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/07/donald-trumps-peace-through-strength-vision-for-the-asia-pacific/
[xv] “The Changing Geopolitics of East Asia,” p. 10.
[xvi] Seth Cropsey, “SOS for a Declining American Navy,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 Jan. 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/s-o-s-for-a-declining-american-navy-1452124971
[xvii] “Donald Trump’s Peace through Strength”.
[xviii] Japan’s Shinzo Abe Discusses Security Alliance at Meeting With Donald Trump,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 Nov. 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/japans-shinzo-abe-to-address-security-alliance-at-donald-trump-meeting-1479404692
[xix] “Lost in Transition,” p. 15.
[xx] “Donald Trump’s Peace through Strength.”
[xxi] Edward Alden, “Trump and U.S. Trade Policy: What’s Known is Scary, What’s Not May be Worse,” Council on Foreign Relations, 9 Nov. 2016. http://blogs.cfr.org/renewing-america/2016/11/09/trump-and-u-s-trade-policy-whats-known-is-scary-whats-not-may-be-worse/
[xxii] “Donald Trump hints US could end ‘One China’ policy,” BBC News, 12 Dec. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-38194371
[xxiii] “The Next Commander in Chief.”
[xxiv] “Lost in Transition,” p. 5.
[xxv] “Reforming the US-China Trade Relationship To Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump website. https://assets.donaldjtrump.com/US-China-Trade-Reform.pdf.
[xxvi] Bill Hayton,“Is Tillerson Willing to Go to War over the South China Sea?” Foreign Policy, 13 Jan. 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/13/is-tillerson-willing-to-go-to-war-over-the-south-china-sea/
[xxvii] China has expanded its military capabilities to an unprecedented level, gradually tilting the balance of power away from the U.S. President Xi Jinping has established a new management style that puts China as the center of a pan-Asian political and economic system of governance, and he recently argued for a pan-Asian security architecture. See Evan A. Feigenbaum, “Not Since Nixon Has a US President Faced Such Tough China Challenge,” The National Interest, 18 Dec. 2016. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/not-since-nixon-has-us-president-faced-such-tough-china-18777
[xxviii] “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, 24 Sept. 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/?utm_source=atlfb
[xxix] Bill Gertz, “China’s Military in 2016: Missiles, Intelligence and the SCS.” Asia Times, 28 Dec. 2016. http://www.atimes.com/chinas-military-2016-missiles-intelligence-scs/
[xxx] “The Future of U.S. Policy Toward Asia.”

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