In November 2017, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the newly elected US President Donald Trump and his approach to foreign policy.
Nine months later, there is little evidence that the Trump administration will craft a definitive foreign policy for Asia. Rather, it seems increasingly likely that US policy towards Asia will be reactive rather than prescriptive, framed by Trump’s transactional ambitions on trade and counterbalanced by the United States’ longstanding security alliances.
But for the foreseeable future, we can discern some characteristics of the Trump administration that are likely to shape its approach to allies and adversaries alike.
First, Trump prefers solving problems through bilateral channels. In the early months of his presidency, Trump made it clear that multilateral venues are not his thing.
The NATO and G20 meetings with European allies revealed a US president who found the formalities of multilateral diplomacy tiresome and awkward. US allies were shocked at Trump’s deliberate decision to forego NATO’s Article Five assurances (on collective self-defence) and were similarly uncomfortable with the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ agenda, dramatically symbolised by the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Second, President Trump seems uninterested in the regional expertise of government or outside experts and instead relies on his instincts and briefing insights from foreign leaders. Few are in the room when he meets with other leaders, creating a chasm between the White House and bureaucracy.
Finally, US foreign policy is badly served by the Trump administration’s unwillingness to nominate senior staff to carry out his foreign policy and security agenda. The Departments of Defense and State continue to operate without political appointees in charge of the Asia bureaus and the Department of State is abysmally understaffed, leaving the US government unprepared to execute foreign policy.
Looking ahead, difficulties and uncertainty abound for the Trump administration’s approach to Asia. Trump’s management of the North Korean crisis has deepened anxiety in Tokyo and Seoul. While the Secretaries of State and Defense have worked to calm the region’s war jitters, Trump upped the ante, threatening ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’. The regime in Pyongyang is known for its fiery rhetoric, but a US president is hardly expected to join in on a game of brinksmanship that could trigger war on the Korean peninsula.
In November, 18 Asian leaders will gather at the East Asia Summit. Unlike Europe, Asia is contested and Trump will not have the luxury of sitting with US allies alone. Sparring with China has become the norm of late in ASEAN sponsored multilateral gatherings, but this time all eyes will be on how Xi Jinping and Trump perform. President Xi will be seeking to demonstrate to his neighbours that China rather than the US should lead in Asia and he too will likely feel pressure from home as he readies for the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress.
At the APEC Summit — also in November — Trump will find himself face to face with the United States’ dissatisfied Asian trading partners and, just like in Hamburg, he is likely to be the odd man out. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has sidelined the United States in the regional trade talks that are so important in Asia and even US allies will not rally behind Trump at APEC meetings.
The remaining 11 TPP nations are forging ahead without the United States and they intend to push their agenda forward. The Trump administration may wish to set up meetings to discuss bilateral trade interests, but, like at the G20, his team will be isolated. For most Asian nations, the top priority now is to consider a future regional trading order without the United States and how to ensure that China will not be able to define it by default.
All of this complex diplomacy will undoubtedly be affected by turbulent politics at home. Once again, the US government seems on the verge of a shutdown. After Charlottesville reopened the wounds of racial violence in the United States, the Republican Party seems deeply divided. To rub salt in those wounds, Trump’s insistence on the Mexican border wall has complicated his own party’s ambitions for the fiscal and tax reforms long promised to their constituents.
There is an opportunity here, if this administration wants it. Trump could counter the impression that his administration is too busy at home to focus on its global interests. He could reassure US partners and allies to remain confident in US leadership. But bluster will not work in this setting. Already, Asian…
Author: Sheila A Smith, CFR
A broader view of poverty in East Asia and Pacific
High turnout expected for Thailand’s first election since 2014 coup
Six priorities to strengthen the digital economy in Southeast Asia
The signs of Southeast Asia’s digital transformation are obvious from its impressive tech “unicorn” companies, such as GoJek, Grab and Lazada, Sea, Tokopedia and Traveloka
Digital lifestyles, cashless societies, app-based businesses, “smart” nations, virtual services – there is a tremendous amount of excitement in Southeast Asia now about the growth of the digital economy. (more…)
Thai Economy likely to miss the 3.5% growth target
Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said the global economic slowdown hasweakened exports and reduced domestic consumption
Google shuts down Huawei’s access to Android updates after US blacklist
Holders of current Huawei smartphones with Google apps, however, will continue to be able to use and download app updates...
Drivers of Asia Pacific office space demand in 2019 remain strong
More employers plan to increase rather than decrease staffing levels in most Asia Pacific countries, with employers in Japan reporting...
First-home stimulus measure may have limited impact on Thailand’s housing market
The first-home buyers who make less than 25,000 baht per month however will not benefit from this scheme.
Real-time payments : An opportunity for the entire Asian financial ecosystem ?
Real-time payments (RTPs) are critical for bringing millions of people into the digital financial ecosystem, enabling the rise in the...
- Tech5 days ago
Thailand to use Biometrics scan to identify travellers
- Tourism2 weeks ago
Thailand extends free visa-on-arrival until 31 October 2019
- Business2 weeks ago
Political uncertainty weighs on Thailand’s consumer confidence
- Property1 week ago
Property slowdown looms over Thai market
- Business6 days ago
Thailand cooperates with Indonesia to push creative industries
- Corporate1 week ago
Challenges and opportunities await Thai businesses to reduce plastic use
- Corporate1 week ago
Flexible workspace key role in company’s success
- Real Estate6 days ago
Thai Property market : condo launches to slow to 61,000 – 64,000 units in 2019