What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?

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What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?

A closer look at what America’s incoming president might do.

What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “I’ll tell you what I’ve told the diplomats: we’re serious about what we said [and] flexible about how we do things too,” a source close to President-elect Donald Trump told The Diplomat early Wednesday morning in response to inquiries about his Asia policy following his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton just a few hours earlier.

After shrugging off much of what Trump said during the election campaign and writing off his chances of winning, many are now rushing to figure out to what extent his words will translate into actions after the biggest U.S. election upset since Harry Truman beat Thomas E. Dewey back in 1948. His approach to Asia has unsurprisingly attracted a lot of attention, given the fact that the future of U.S. President Barack Obama’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific hangs in the balance (See: “US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges”).

Asia has certainly been an area of focus for the Trump campaign, though most are probably familiar only with the headline-grabbing statements about U.S. alliances and nuclear weapons rather than how the region factors into Trump’s overall worldview and what that means for his likely Asia policy. With Trump set to take office in January 2017, it is worth taking a closer look at what America’s new president might do in the region.

Trump’s Worldview

An ‘America First’ Foreign Policy

The conventional wisdom is that Trump’s foreign policy worldview, if implemented, would diverge significantly from post-World War II U.S. foreign policy. But the extent to which this is true is not as clear as it seems.

To be sure, his outlook, which he has said might be summarized as “America First,” is based on a bleak assessment of America’s position in the world today, a narrow interpretation of U.S. interests, and a transactional approach in dealing with the international community. It is a far cry from what we are used to hearing from traditional U.S. presidential candidates, who rarely question American exceptionalism and indispensability in the world or the alliances and free trade agreements that form the bedrock of U.S. commitment to the liberal world order.

Trump fleshed out this view in an April 27 address at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington, D.C. think tank that, at the time, received a fair bit of flak for even inviting him to speak.

In that speech, Trump argued that U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era had been wasteful, rudderless, unreliable, and ineffective. By contrast, Trump said he would focus more narrowly on rebuilding America’s military and economy, curbing the spread of radical Islam, and fashioning what he called a “new rational American foreign policy,” which some have also since somewhat loosely termed a version of realism.

It is this broader worldview that gives rise to those of Trump’s foreign policy beliefs grabbing headlines, including his skepticism for alliances and free trade and comfort with authoritarian regimes in Russia and China.

Trump the Pragmatist?

Yet Trump’s views, his advisers say, are often unfairly caricatured in spite of attempts made to clarify them. Following scrutiny at home and abroad, Trump has subsequently said that he is not opposed to alliances per se, but their cost, and that he would be open to trade deals he perceives as being fair to the United States.

But those nuances, the Trump adviser who spoke to The Diplomat said, were only picked up by those attentive to what he was actually saying, as opposed to what was being reported.

Besides, once one gets beyond these general principles and down to specific issue areas within his America First foreign policy, Trump’s foreign policy views seem relatively more mainstream.

Walid Phares, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, has said that Trump’s two principal concerns are terrorism, with the rise of the Islamic State, and nuclear non-proliferation, with the challenges that both Iran and North Korea pose. Those concerns would top any prospective American president’s list.

And with respect to Trump’s willingness to work with authoritarian countries like Russia and China, Trump has repeatedly said that this is due not to his ideological leanings, but simply because he views the challenge of radical Islam as being far more important and urgent.

Supporting this line of argument, Phares wrote on Fox News back in April that Trump’s softer line toward Moscow and Beijing was simply a product of the fact that he saw jihadism as the greater immediate threat, which required the assistance of U.S. rivals as well.

“Mr. Trump clearly desires to reduce tensions with Russia and China so as to better focus on containing our common enemy, jihadism,” Phares wrote.

As proof of Trump’s pragmatism, Phares also claimed in that piece that Trump would not hesitate to use “economic leverage” – which could conceivably mean sanctions – to pressure China into reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, which he also considered a top priority.

Implications for U.S. Asia Policy

Given what we know and don’t know about Trump’s worldview, what does that mean for U.S. Asia policy under his watch?

At first glance, Trump’s headline-grabbing rhetoric would seem to signal a radical departure away from all four pillars of Obama’s rebalance to Asia – building alliances and partnerships; strengthening regional institutions; deepening economic engagement; and promoting democracy and human rights. Yet a closer look reveals that the extent of change may not be as dramatic as some are making it out to be.

Alliances and Partnerships

First, with respect to America’s Asian alliances and partnerships, Trump has signaled a more transactional, narrow approach to these relationships based largely on greater burden-sharing.

To be fair, Obama, too, emphasized the need for greater burden-sharing in his rebalance to Asia. But he got to this from a more expansive, liberal internationalist vision, and his solution was to not only strengthen alliances, but build out a set of newer, institutionalized strategic and comprehensive partnerships to encourage greater involvement by established and emerging powers in a wide range of global and regional challenges.

If Trump follows through on what he has said, he will want to reevaluate America’s key treaty alliances and, where possible, ask them to do more. But what exactly would that mean in practice?

In his April 28 speech at CNI, Trump got a little more specific when he boasted that he would call for a summit with America’s NATO and Asian allies where they would discuss a rebalancing of financial commitments as well as ways to adopt new strategies to tackle common challenges.

Predictably, he was mum on the exact nature of that summit. But there are already signs that he may actually be quite content with even minor adjustments in terms of burden-sharing among America’s allies.

For instance, in his August 15 speech on radical Islamic terrorism, which came just a few months after his criticism of NATO, he said the United States would now “work closely” with the institution on that challenge since, following his criticism on its obsolescence, NATO had shown a willingness to change by having a new division focused on terror threats.

It is also unclear which specific allies would be affected by this approach, if any, and how exactly he will approach each case. Rhetorically, Trump’s focus has been on Japan and South Korea, which is no surprise since that is where most U.S. troops are based in Asia.

Even here, though, Trump’s senior advisers, including Michael Flynn, who has visited Japan, have repeatedly downplayed his suggestions about potentially withdrawing U.S. troops and tolerance for Tokyo going nuclear, and insisted that he not only remains committed to the alliance but would be open to strengthening it to address common threats like North Korea following initial talks.

On America’s Southeast Asian allies, far less is known. One interesting relationship to watch will be the U.S.-Philippine alliance, where President Rodrigo Duterte has himself said that the Philippines does not really get that much from the United States and is looking to cut certain parts of the defense relationship (See: “Will Duterte End the US-Philippine Military Alliance?”). So far, Trump has predictably pounced on Duterte’s frosty ties with the United States and warming relations with China as evidence of Obama’s failed foreign policy but has said little else.

On the other hand, Australia presents a case on the opposite end of the spectrum, since Canberra has been willing to support a greater U.S. military presence. Indeed, Obama’s announcement of the rotational deployment of U.S. marines in Darwin – still not fully realized – in remarks to the Australian parliament back in November 2011 was one of the key features of the military aspect of the rebalance. How Trump responds to an ally keen to take on a greater share of the burden remains to be seen.

A final consideration is how Trump would deal with China, which awkwardly lies outside of America’s expanding alliance and partnership network – or, if you prefer, “principled security network” – in the Asia-Pacific. In spite of the suggestion that Trump would simply embrace Beijing, the indications from his advisers are that he is likely to continue the approach of his predecessors who treated China with a mix of engagement and balancing.

For example, in a piece published in Foreign Policy on November 7, two of Trump’s advisers, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, framed Trump’s Asia approach – which would involve a more self-interested approach to economics and a stronger military – almost entirely around China’s rising assertiveness and Beijing’s overplaying of its hand in the region. The piece, which  alsoblamed the Obama administration for failing to respond to Chinese gains in the South China Sea as well as with America’s twin Southeast Asian allies, Thailand and the Philippines, was far more hawkish than what we have seen in U.S.-China policy in recent years.

Regional Institutions

Second, on regional institutions and multilateralism more generally, there are very few indications of what Trump’s views are. The temptation would be to assume that if he has very little patience even for free-riding allies, then he would devote almost none of America’s attention to Asian multilateral engagements led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a sharp contrast to the Obama administration, which had devoted more time, attention, and resources to ASEAN-led institutions (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters”).

Like other dimensions of Trump’s worldview, there are no shortage of speeches and statements that would support an anti-multiateralist stance. For example, in a speech delivered a day after Obama’s swan song this September at the United Nations General Assembly – where the outgoing president specifically said he believed that giving up some freedom of action to bind Washington to international rules was ultimately a good investment that would enhance its security – Trump repeated at a rally that unlike the corrupt political establishment, which embraced globalism for self-serving reasons, he would focus on what was best for the United States.

“I am not running to be president of the world,” Trump said to emphasize his point. “I am running to be president of the United States, and that’s what we’re going to take care of.”

This fiery rhetoric aside, though, the key question is the degree to which Trump and his administration would actually approach multilateral engagements.

It is difficult to see him missing out on all multilateral engagements, especially if he realizes, with or without the help of his advisers, that some of them actually help advance his goals, like countering terrorism.

To his credit, Trump has already shown a willingness to selectively employ multilateralism to realize narrow U.S. interests. In his speech on radical Islam delivered in August, he said he would call for an international conference where the United States would work with its Middle Eastern friends and allies, including Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, to tackle the threat.

Less clear is whether a Trump administration’s selective employment of multilateralism would extend to the economic sphere. The extent to which this is the case will determine if we see some high-level attention devoted to initiatives like the fledgling U.S.-ASEAN Connect Initiative unveiled under the Obama administration, or whether it simply dies a slow death.

Whether or not he sees engagements like the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting as important enough to attend on a regular basis, however, is an open question. On the one hand, Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN as a bloc are important actors in addressing challenges that Trump and his advisers believe are important, including terrorism and maritime security.

On the other hand, he may determine that he can still foster this collaboration by engaging selective countries bilaterally or through other U.S.-led institutions like the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, rather than larger groupings that move slower. There are also intermediate options. For example, he could also choose to not attend certain ASEAN meetings personally and instead send a lower-ranking official, downgrading America’s presence but not eliminating it entirely.

Economic Engagement

Trump has certainly said a lot more about the third pillar of U.S. Asia policy: economic engagement.

The item that he has spent the most time on by far is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Given Trump’s fierce opposition to the pact, it is difficult to see him reversing position on this. His election win also arguably all but kills the odds of TPP passing during the “lame duck” session of Congress after the election, since Republicans have little incentive to bring it to a vote and pick an early fight with an incoming president who may well move to block it.

That does not necessarily mean that Trump is opposed to all trade deals, however. Trump and his advisers have said that he would be open to trade agreements that are better deals for the United States. If they are indeed serious about that, this could be a significant point. Beyond other bilateral agreements, such as the investment treaty proposed between the United States and China, TPP, which is essentially a collection of bilateral deals, could be salvaged in parts with agreements reached with individual nations.

Flynn, the Trump adviser, made a point of mentioning in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review during his most recent trip to Japan in October that though Trump did believe in free trade, he thought bilateral deals were better than multilateral blocs because “we have opportunity to cut [a] better deal.”

The United States and Japan both do not currently have a bilateral free trade agreement, unlike some countries within TPP (like Singapore) that already have an FTA with Washington.

Less clear is how Trump would proceed with proposals like raising tariffs on imports from China and Mexico or renegotiate other existing trading agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tough trade talk is common in U.S. presidential elections, with candidates seldom following through. Trump’s aides, for their part, have sought to downplay the advent of doomsday scenarios like an all-out trade war.

The dire effects of some of Trump’s proposed policies on the American economy also suggest that they are unlikely to be actually enacted. For instance, one study by the Peterson institute for International Economics (PIIE), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that if large tariffs are imposed on China and Mexico and retaliation ensues, the United States could go into a recession and lose five million jobs.

Trump has said less about broader questions that demand attention within the economic dimension of U.S. Asia policy, such as how Washington can better leverage its strengths to engage regional actors as China’s growing heft tilts the healthy competition for economic influence in its favor.

Human Rights and Democracy

The fourth and final aspect of U.S. Asia policy worth considering is human rights and democracy.

At first glance, Trump’s views not only seem unclear but at times contradictory. His rhetoric suggests that he has both a Manichean view of the world – especially when talking about radical Islam – but also a realist understanding of international relations where selective cooperation can be pursued where common interests exist even if ideological differences remain.

This could be nothing more than window dressing to reconcile his amateurish attempts to draw Cold War-like battle lines between democracies and authoritarian regimes while also leaving himself room to pursue better relations with authoritarian states like Russia, which he has a personal affinity for independent of their contribution to the national interest.

Whether this is the case or not, Trump’s narrow interpretation of U.S. interests suggests that he would devote even less attention to the promotion of U.S. ideals than the Obama administration, which, to its credit, pursued a relatively softer line relative to the Bush years but also found nimbler ways of conducting business, whether it be through town hall meetings featuring the president or the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

Trump himself has suggested that he is less interested in spreading “universal values that not everybody shares or wants,” but will instead work with U.S. allies to “reinvigorate Western values and institutions.”

How exactly he will do that is a mystery. Indeed, the mere fact that he has been elected in the United States in spite of his xenophobic, misogynistic, and bigoted rhetoric on the campaign trail, as well as his all-too-cozy relationship with authoritarian regimes, would presumably undercut any attempt by his administration to reinvigorate Western values or institutions.


As we consider Trump’s potential policies, it is also important to keep in mind that there are a handful of uncertainties that will also affect the shape of his eventual foreign policy, including in Asia.

First, as has been pointed out repeatedly already, it is not clear to what extent Trump would actually be wedded to acting on the views that he has expressed. Though some of his views may be long-held, he has never been in government, and the personal opinions he had while being a businessmen and television celebrity may evolve once he assumes the presidency and has to think about the national interest. He has also demonstrated a tendency to flip-flop on certain issues, and there is often a divergence between what he says and what his aides claim he means to say.

Second, we don’t know how Trump’s actual views may translate into policymaking when it comes to Asia. Unlike the case of Clinton, whose Asia policy team was comprised of known quantities, Trump’s foreign policy advisers in general are much less well-known, even in the case of Phares and Flynn. The composition and hierarchy of the advisers could also change depending on whether we see mainstream Republican foreign policy experts who initially opposed Trump now return to serve under the president in 2017 and beyond.

Beyond personalities, we also do not know how exactly Trump will choose to receive and act on the advice he gets. Based on what we know about Trump, he does not read much and often ignores advice. Asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe back in March about whom he consulted on foreign policy, Trump said he was his own primary consultant because he had what he called a “good instinct.” His almost schizophrenic relationship with his advisers during the general election also suggests that even if he does listen to advice, the process by which this plays out will be far from coherent.

Third, Trump, like any president, and perhaps more than most, faces constraints in putting some of his policies into practice, both in the form of other domestic actors as well as regional and global challenges.

Domestically, if Trump, with a Republican Congress, chooses to move forward with too many of his divisive policies too quickly – from dismantling Affordable Care Act (ACA) to appointing a Supreme Court justice that is far too conservative and would reignite America’s culture wars – he could exacerbate fierce political divides, prompt obstructionism in the legislature, and eventually lose Congress in 2018 as Obama did early on in his first term, following what was read as executive overreach.

If too much of his time, energy, and political capital is expended domestically, that might give him less room to chart a radically different U.S. foreign policy that could have implications for Asia. He could even outsource most of the implementation to his senior foreign policy advisers, who could then moderate his more extreme tendencies, leading to far more continuity with U.S. Asia policy than might otherwise be expected (alternatively, though, a President Trump that is hamstrung domestically could also seek to exert more control on foreign policy, where the president has far less checks and balances).

Trump could also run into regional and global challenges that may lead him to shift in the direction of more continuity in U.S. Asia policy irrespective of his initial positions, or, alternatively even more drastic change.

On the one hand, if Trump, in his war against radical Islam, does end up embroiled in another Middle Eastern quagmire, we could see Washington’s attention once again being diverted away from the region, or, alternatively, the rise of more threat-centric U.S. foreign policy approach centered around counterterrorism and nuclear non-proliferation, something like what we saw during the first part of George W. Bush’s tenure.

On the other hand, if a nightmare scenario does indeed come to pass and Trump begins to take dramatic steps that undermine America’s military presence and economic influence in Asia, then we could see a familiar pattern in U.S. foreign policy where vacuums are filled by Washington’s rivals and adversaries, prompting calls for a more activist stance among other domestic actors.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, it is worth remembering that the last U.S. president that tried to implement such a radical departure in U.S. foreign policy was Jimmy Carter, who issued a Trump-like call in the 1970s to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and the Philippines following the Vietnam War. Though it took some time, Carter was eventually forced to reverse course due to stiff bureaucratic resistance as well as rising regional and global threats, including Soviet aggression. We could see some form of this repeating itself in the coming years.

How all this plays out will take time, a point that Trump’s advisers have been making in response to the flood of inquiries. Though policymakers, experts, and other observers will be feverishly seeking answers about what a Trump administration might do in Asia, we probably will not find out the broad contours until well into 2017. Trump will only be taking office in January next year, after which officials and advisers will have to go through their confirmation hearings and policy will slowly begin to take shape as trips are arranged and meetings are held with key allies and partners. All the while, events will continue to evolve.

“It’s still early days,” the Trump adviser told The Diplomat. “It’ll be a while, as it often is, before we get region-specific [and] down in the weeds.”

Prashanth Parameswaran is an associate editor at The Diplomat Magazine based in Washington, D.C., where he writes extensively about U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, Asian security affairs, and Southeast Asia. He is also a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.