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Trump and US Asia Policy: Why Intel Matters

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Trans-Pacific View

Trump and US Asia Policy: Why Intel Matters

Insights from Rodney Faraon.

Trump and US Asia Policy: Why Intel Matters
Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Rodney Faraon – Partner at Crumpton Group, former founding Director of The Walt Disney Company’s Global Intelligence practice, senior analyst and former briefer on the CIA’s President’s Daily Briefing team; and executive producer of NBC primetime television show State of Affairs – is the 72nd in “The Rebalance Insight Series”. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Faraon.

How might the Trump administration recalibrate the U.S. pivot to Asia?

No one can accurately predict the Trump Administration’s policy toward anything as of yet. His national security team has not been fully constituted, and what we are left with to judge is a corpus of statements that President-elect Trump has made in the past, which may or may not become policy.

What I can say with confidence is that everything is on the table. Mr. Trump is a businessman who sees himself as a deal-maker and an iconoclast. As both, he will re-examine Washington’s entire foreign policy approach; he will focus on China as the United States’ major competitor around the world, and trying to work out a new status quo in East Asia will be a top priority. If he plays his cards right, it is possible that he could go down in history as “The Great Negotiator” as much as Reagan is now known as the Great Communicator. If not, there will be serious consequences.

In the transition period, what are key indicators of how the Trump White House might define its national security approach?

It starts at the top. The President-elect’s past statements – not just from the campaign, but also from his private sector life – indicates that Trump eschews nuance and in fact has blamed our diplomats and other foreign policy practitioners for dwelling too much on nuance and taking an academic, ineffectual approach to policy. The current makeup of his national security team suggests a major change in how Washington conducts its business. With retired military officers such as Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor, and General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, the trend is toward decisive, results-driven leadership and fast policy execution. And with Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, we will see a business-like, highly transactional approach to diplomacy that focuses on negotiating deals – perhaps new, unprecedented ones that have the potential to change the security paradigm in Asia in ways not seen since the end of the Cold War.

The challenge will be squaring Trump’s frequent comments on foreign policy before he and his team take office with the realities of governing and making policy. It is possible that the more provocative statements he makes are aimed at creating negotiating leverage where it does not exist or is weak, but unpredictability can be risky in foreign affairs.

Describe three scenarios – good, bad, and ugly – of how U.S. Asia policy might unfold under the Trump presidency.    

The Good: A New Deal. President Trump’s vision changes the strategic face of Asia by creating a new modus operandi whereby governments in the region guarantee their own political and military stability, which increases the sustainability of a peaceful environment that is not U.S.-centric. Trump establishes a Grand Bargain with Beijing that enables the relationship to proceed anew with business and economics as the focus, but with stability across the Taiwan Strait and the shelving of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. North Korea is contained by a coalition of partners that includes Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and the United States. All will depend on Trump’s ability to convince the region that economic needs are the top priority.

The Bad: Nothing Ever Changes. Washington’s loss of credibility in the region from its tepid and unfunded “pivot” erodes further as the Trump Administration talks a big game but does not back it up with resources or political will. Whiplash from frequent policy and rhetorical reversals leads some U.S. allies to bandwagon with Beijing, which by contrast demonstrates strong leadership and consistency, even in in trade and macro-economics. Japan correspondingly becomes increasingly assertive because of a reduced U.S. commitment to its defense, and in its efforts to balance the strategic equation against China exacerbates divisions in the region, creating further distance between Washington and its allies and former allies.

The Ugly: North Korea and China decide to test the Administration’s resolve and red lines by conducting provocative military activity. The activity escalates in reaction to perceived slights and to a trade war that emerges with Beijing. Taiwan becomes a renewed focus, and there is a return to the tension between the United States and China that we witnessed in 1996. North Korea nuclear weapons tests show increased yields and quality, and Pyongyang demonstrates a capability to mount a nuclear-sized payload on its missiles, including its ICBM. Left on its own, Japan rapidly increases the tempo of its military activity leading to historical concerns that China whips up, but more important, to potential miscalculations and accidents that could result in an unintended conflict.

What top three geopolitical risks in Asia face the Trump administration?

I put North Korea first. Pyongyang has a well-established pattern of provocations designed to extract economic and other concessions from the rest of the world. Kim Jong-un’s initial praise for Mr. Trump was a signal that he would be open to negotiations, but the Trump Administration would need to ensure that it can create leverage via a strong front with China, South Korea, and others to make a deal workable. Frustration with the pace of the talks will lead Kim to launch military activity that is certain to draw a sharp reaction from Washington.

China-Taiwan is next. A Trump Administration effort to change the political status quo, coupled with a willing participant in a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led Taiwan will increase tensions; how far and how long is an open question. The integration of of China in American foreign policy and economics will complicate the situation as spillover from trade disputes could affect Beijing’s willingness to compromise on other issues important to Washington. China will probably be less flexible diplomatically. With a major leadership transition due in 2017, Xi Jinping cannot afford to look weak or manipulated by the United States if he hopes to maintain, much less strengthen his grip on power. By rule, most of his allies in the Politburo Standing Committee will have to retire in 2017 and members from a different political faction are likely to succeed them. To go against the rules will require extraordinary political capital which Xi can earn or lose through foreign policy.

Third is internal to the Administration itself: the risk of mistakes that stem from bad assumptions and ill-informed decisions. I’m troubled that President-elect Trump is not taking a daily intelligence briefing, and to the extent that the Intelligence Community presents findings that he does not like – such as recent revelations of Russian intelligence interference in the U.S. political process – he appears to pick and choose the facts he wants to believe and act upon. I’m reminded of something John Le Carré once wrote, that if an intelligence service doesn’t deliver intelligence to its customers “those customers would resort to other, less scrupulous sellers, or, worse, indulge in amateurish self-help.”

How should President Trump articulate and demonstrate U.S. leadership commitment to Asia in the first 100 days in office?

He needs to be there. And follow through on commitments. A visit to Asia, particularly to a key ally such as Japan, would go a long way toward assuring the region that Washington will remain engaged. Moreover, it is an opportunity to show that American commitment to the defense of their friends brings prestige as well as political capital and the ability to influence. President-elect Trump himself says persuasion, not power, is the key to effective deal-making. Frank discussions with allies will show that both go hand in hand when it comes to statecraft.