Hints of Trump’s Asia policyPresident-elect Donald J. Trump said a lot of things about Korea and Asia during the election campaign that alarmed American allies in the region and internationalists within the United States. With Trump’s promise recently that the United States will withdraw from the trans-Pacific Partnership in his first 100 days as president, as well as his unprecedented telephone call to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, many have predicted a marked departure in the American approach to Asia.
There is a lot we do not know about the incoming Trump administration. How will it fill so many political jobs when there was friction with so many Republican establishment experts during the campaign? Who will be his Secretary of State? How much will Trump delegate to Vice President Mike Pence, who is now receiving regular intelligence briefings and running the transition team? Will he abandon the rebalance to Asia to focus on radical Islamic terrorism?
There is only one thing that is certain about the incoming administration’s national security policy, and that is that whatever the Trump team thinks its greatest challenge is, something different will almost certainly grab the headlines instead. Bill Clinton came in expecting to refocus on American jobs at home and to build partnerships abroad to reduce the American Cold War burden to provide security abroad. Instead, he spent his time dealing with the crisis in North Korea and great power competition with China — precisely the Cold War-like threats he thought were in the past.
George W. Bush came in focused on China as a strategic competitor, but was forced to fight terrorism instead and U.S.-China relations proved to be comparatively stable and productive. Barack Obama thought he would unite rising powers around the world around climate change, but instead was buffeted by expansionism and coercion by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. In other words, the rest of the world gets a vote on whether the new U.S. president’s campaign theories about the threat are correct or not.
Even the apparent evidence of major departures in U.S. foreign policy may be misleading. Take Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. Yes, it was unprecedented and broke protocol. But in 1981, Reagan came into office promising to reverse previous policy and normalize relations with Taiwan and invited senior Taiwanese representatives to his inaugural events.
These moves were far more shocking to Beijing than Trump’s recent phone call. There was a year or more of tussle between pro-Taiwan and pro-Beijing officials in the new Reagan administration, but eventually Reagan established a good working relationship with Beijing and good will in Taiwan without any major changes to the parameters of existing U.S.-China policy. That is not a guarantee that a Trump administration will usher in a new era of stability with China, but history at least suggests that the scenario cannot be ruled out.
Trump’s promise to force allies to pay more or face the risk that the United States will not protect them is another false lead. Yes, the Trump administration will probably expect U.S. allies to pay more, but by nominating James Mattis for Secretary of Defense, Trump has chosen a highly respected four-star Marine who spent his entire career building stronger alliances overseas.
Trump’s candidates for Secretary of State are all committed to strong alliances. This will be a politically strong cabinet of experienced people more focused on deterring adversaries than getting a better financial deal to support U.S. forces (though that will also be an issue, particularly with Special Measures Agreement talks coming soon between Korea and the United States). Strong alliances will be indispensable to their strategy.
Even Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw from the trans-Pacific Partnership may not be as terminal a sentence for free trade as observers think. For one, Trump never said he opposed free-trade agreements, just that they were disasters for voters in states like Michigan and Ohio. Setting aside whether KORUS or the North American Free Trade Agreement were “disasters” (my view is that they were not), the fact is that the governors, legislatures and business communities in all the states Trump won are in favor of TPP and KORUS. Moreover, Trump will be the first president to enter office with the Trade Promotion Authority already passed and ready for whatever trade deals he wants to negotiate. To be sure, attacking TPP was so central to his message that he will not likely reverse himself soon.
But he and his nominees for Commerce and Treasury secretaries have already created wiggle room by declaring that the problem with TPP is its multilateral nature and that better deals could be gained bilaterally. Clinton needed about two years of fighting Japan on trade before pushing through NAFTA. Obama ran against KORUS and remained silent on TPP, but within a year was moving on both. Trump’s opposition to trade deals was more central to his win, but there are a number of scenarios under which he uses his fresh Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate bilateral side deals or expand the scope of TPP in ways that make the agreement more sellable in the United States.
Trump told The New York Times that the key to his foreign policy was to be unpredictable. That worked for him in the New York real estate world. It might cause Kim Jong-un to take pause. It also makes it hard to say what a Trump administration will ultimately do on China, trade and alliances.
But even if unpredictability can be unnerving for allies who depend on American steadfastness in the face of threats like North Korea, it also reveals how much work the new administration still has to develop coherent foreign and defense policy strategies. And they will need input from Korea. Nothing is set in stone.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.