Since Donald Trump took office last month, people everywhere have been concerned that US foreign policy could experience far-reaching change; the regional strategic situation in the Asia Pacific also could shift in an unfavorable direction for China. Understanding such concern, we must prevent misjudgments from forming on the basis of the penetration of this kind of logic. The world in which we are located, including the Asia-Pacific region, over the coming few years will still advance on the existing track, and my view is that there cannot be any substantial change. The debate in China on Trump’s impact has been intense since the time of his election and has kept shifting over time, but my conclusion is shared by many commentators.
What Were the Pillars of Obama’s Pivot to Asia Policy?
In our estimation, the core contents of the “Asia-Pacific rebalance” strategy proposed by Obama include: 1) forging even closer US-Japan, US-ROK, US-Philippines, and US-Australia military alliances, as well as closer security cooperation with Vietnam, India, and Singapore, e.g., the intelligence sharing triangular US-Japan-ROK agreement in 2015, the united anti-missile tests of the same three states in 2016, and the looming deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea; 2) taking advantage of the East China and South China Sea issues to enable the United States to deepen its interference in Southeast Asian regional affairs, goading the Philippines to make use of the international arbitration court to go one step further in internationalizing the South China Sea problem and, simultaneously, sending US warships through the sea on “freedom of navigation” missions, which have raised the level of militarization of this problem; 3) using the signing of TPP agreements to boost the US leadership in establishing a new system of rules for international trade liberalization, containing the extension of China’s right for economic influence in the region; and 4) prioritizing ASEAN’s position in US Asia-Pacific foreign policy, while constructing a barrier against China establishing a strategic belt for advancing toward the Indian Ocean.
Actually, Obama greatly stressed Southeast Asia. During his time in office, he visited countries in the area eight times, conducting summit gatherings with the leadership of ASEAN seven times. In 2009, the United States entered TAC as Obama called himself the first Asia-Pacific president in US history; in 2010 the United States became an observer state at the EAS, the following year it became a formal member, and Obama also became the first US president to participate in the EAS. Obama conducted annual US-ASEAN summits, and in 2016 prior to leaving office, he broke precedent by inviting the leaders of the ten ASEAN states to California for a summit. For some ASEAN states, Obama expressed unprecedented enthusiasm, becoming the first US president while in office to visit Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. This is a legacy of deepening US involvement in the region, which was not slowing prior to 2017.
Will Trump Pull Down the Relations Obama Built?
In general, Trump’s foreign policy platform could turn more in the direction of unilateralism in military affairs, retreat from globalization, and non-interference in internal affairs than the Obama administration. Trump advocates strengthening the US military, its naval fleet, and its anti-missile and nuclear rocket numbers, while forging a US fortress. He is opposed to existing multilateral trade agreements, the US-Russia strategic nuclear agreement, and the Iran nuclear agreement, calling for carrying out renegotiations. At the same time, he also criticizes the way George W. Bush and Obama interfered in governments of the Middle East. If these three lines of thinking filter into his policies toward China and the Asia Pacific, then they could bring greater instability to the future development of Sino-US relations, which would create both future opportunities and also future challenges.
The Asia-Pacific strategy of Trump in office could, on the surface, be unstable neo-realism, leaving elements of change and of continuity. He possibly will no longer cite the “rebalance to the Asia Pacific,” but militarily and strategically he could maintain continuity in the Asia-Pacific strategy, while in foreign policy, politics, and economics, bringing forward adjustments as multilateralism and regional economic liberalization are dropped, while clashing with multilateral cooperative institutions.
Trump’s level of emphasis on ASEAN and Southeast Asian states would not easily reach the heights of Obama’s term, raising fear of reconsideration of the value of ASEAN, making very possible less positive treatment of ASEAN. This could take the form of Trump treating the multilateral system under the ASEAN structure as a place to “deal,” while taking a cautious attitude toward participating in the EAS, leading to a forecast that Trump could send the vice-president or secretary of state to this summit. Coming at a time of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and the 40th anniversary of the establishment of US-ASEAN relations, this would not be auspicious news and would be a blow to ASEAN, while influencing bilateral relations.
As for his China policy, Trump many times in his speeches and writings aroused an unfriendly atmosphere in attacking China. For example, on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons, Trump considers China to not have applied sufficient pressure on it to abandon these weapons, and places complete responsibility on China for the nuclear problem’s development to the present. In Trump’s personal impression, China is a state that “cheats” the United States and does not respect it. He thinks that he can adopt a harder line attitude than the Obama administration did; with the logic of a “businessman” and “dealer,” he can garner various rewards, or, in case of a counterattack, use frightening methods to “tame” China. Trump considers the fact that the United States first allowed China to enter the WTO a “catastrophe,” and he has promised that after winning the election he would name a treasury secretary who would brand China with the label “currency manipulator,” take strict retaliatory steps, and order the US trade representative to bring trade cases against the conduct of China’s state-owned enterprises, while imposing a 45 percent tariff on all goods that were imported from China in order to limit Chinese exports to the United States and achieve balanced trade figures.
Peter Navarro, Trump’s advisor on economic policy and Asia-Pacific policy was largely positive toward the strategic direction of Obama’s “rebalance to the Asia Pacific,” and warned that the threat from China in the Asia Pacific is increasing daily. Navarro thinks that China after a few decades of military modernization—to a great extent due to benefiting from the Sino-US trade imbalance—will be in a favorable position to show its true colors. Washington’s “rebalance” is an appropriate and timely response to China’s behavior. But he criticizes the excessive weakness of Obama’s military encirclement response in the Western Pacific to China. He views US forces and naval vessels in Singapore and Australia as too few; he sees rapid deterioration in US-Philippine relations caused by lack of support for the sovereignty of the Philippines on Scarborough Shoal in the Sino-Philippine dispute; and he blames the Obama administration for disregarding Taiwan security as the military power gap widened between the Mainland and Taiwan. Therefore, Navarro has proposed to Trump to change Obama’s Asia-Pacific strategy of “loud thunder but few drops of rain,” stressing adding to the US military presence in the Western Pacific, standing by the side of the Philippine armed forces in the South China Sea Spratly dispute, and strengthening arms sale to the Taiwan military to achieve balance on the two sides of the strait. On December 4, 2016, Trump spoke with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen and directly touched on the red line of a one-China policy in Sino-US relations. From this, we can see that Trump’s “retreatism” and “non-interference,” on a global scale are not equal to “retreatism” toward China. In regard to security toward China, the mainstream of the Republicans and Trump’s level of activism is even higher, which means the challenge to China is even greater.
Trump can possibly maintain the position he took in the election campaign. First, the ferocity of attacks on Sino-US trade were unprecedented. In all of his speeches that touched on foreign policy, he attacked China for currency manipulation and trade imbalances, and he was detailed and concrete in plans for how he would carry out trade retaliation. Second, inside the United States, no matter whether it is the ordinary people or the political elite, the wave of opposition to free trade has reached unprecedented levels, and if Trump, now in office, does not follow up on his repeated promises in the election competition in the area of trade, this would inflict a big blow to his grassroots support. The fact that right after taking office he signed an executive order withdrawing from TPP is proof that his determination is firm in carrying out his main promises. Third, Trump’s corps of economic policy advisors is from the “anti-trade faction” of those who have roundly criticized Sino-US trade. This can lead Trump in managing trade relations with China and trade talks to be receptive to even more one-sided proposals, resulting in setbacks to Sino-US trade. In Navarro’s words, concentrating attention on managing trade deficits can lead to good results. This is Trump’s trade philosophy. Moreover, Trump and his advisors likely have already underestimated the level of mutual dependency in Sino-US trade, and the fact that the long-term impact of Sino-US trade has already caused China to have the capacity to prepare to retaliate, to a considerable degree, against US protectionist trade behavior.
After One Month in Office, How Should We Anticipate Trump’s East Asian Policy?
The development of the situation since Trump took office seen from two different angles conforms to our expectations. He is a man true to his election promises, leaving TPP, although this decision caused a lot of damage to Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and other countries, and China gained an unexpected opportunity to advance RCEP. He is also a principled man, who on the one hand, firmly sticks to the bilateral military alliances with Japan and South Korea, first sending Defense Secretary General Mattis to visit these two countries and later having Prime Minister Abe visit the United States, as the US side restated its promise that the Diaoyu Islands fall under the defense rubric of the US-Japan Security Treaty, while basically sticking to the Obama era promises, including deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea and on the South China Sea and other issues favoring negotiations. On the other hand, Trump has toned down his antagonistic posture toward China, e.g., the Treasury Department has not charged China as a currency manipulator but gave it the label of an “unfair trader,” while also not directing corresponding countermeasures only against China, but rather referring to all countries having trading relations with the United States. Mattis during his visit to Japan stressed that preference would be given to diplomatic rather than to military means to resolve the South China Sea question.
There is no doubt that in the Trump administration’s Asia-Pacific policy the most dramatic change was his February 10 telephone conversation with Chairman Xi Jinping, following Trump’s February 8 letter congratulating the Chinese people on their New Year’s holiday and year of the rooster. In the telephone call, Trump said that maintaining high-level Sino-US channels of communication is extremely important, and he expressed satisfaction with sustaining the close bilateral relations of preceding presidents. He extolled the historical achievements realized through China’s development. Developing Sino-US relations has broad support from the American people, and Trump believes that the United States and China have become cooperative partners, who through joint efforts can advance their bilateral relations to a historically new level, and that the US side will strive to strengthen mutual cooperation in trade, investment, and other spheres as well as on international matters. Trump emphasized that he fully understands the high level of importance of the US government conducting a one-China policy. If one compares this with Trump’s campaign period comments touching on China and post-election conversation with Tsai Ing-wen casting doubt on the one-China policy, calling China the “enemy” of the United States, etc., the conversation of the two leaders has had an incalculably positive influence, while providing evidence to analysts in China and the United States that they must make stable, calm judgments about the big picture in bilateral relations.
Will Trump Be Able to Fulfill His Promises?
Trump is an extremely iconoclastic, narcissistic, activist leader, who does what he says, but this world cannot fundamentally change because of Trump. Actually, during the campaign process, Trump often spoke of wanting to do this or that. However, in analyzing Trump, we cannot only look at what he says and is thinking of doing. It is more important to evaluate what he can do and what he can accomplish. According to past research, of the promises made by US presidential candidates in the campaign process, they succeed after election in fulfilling only 70 percent. We judge that if Trump can realize just half of his promises that would be not bad at all.
First, there are systemic limitations. Trump is a man who entered the White House from outside the system, clearly lacking in experience within the system. He can discover a big gap between what he seeks to do and can do. The authority of US presidents is limited by the Constitution and by various laws, which Congress and the Supreme Court have the power to enforce. There are also limitations emanating from the bureaucracy, which may not carry out various policies. It is not a matter of him saying something and that then materializing. If Trump threatens existing interests of various levels of officials, it is not difficult to image that his policies will be resisted or caught in red tape, as is shown in resistance to his policy adjustment toward Russia.
The third type of limitation originates in various interest groups. If existing policies are eliminated or greatly changed, it means a redistribution of interests, which might be welcomed by the beneficiaries but would meet fierce resistance from those who would be the losers. One of the main battlegrounds for the clash of interests will be Congress, not only from Democrats but also from some Republicans, including those who have been a steadying force on US Asia-Pacific policy in representing interests concerned with Asia. Finally there are grassroots limitations, as seen in large-scale demonstrations that occurred right after Trump’s inauguration, whose aims were to warn him that he could not do just as he liked.
China is Asia’s liveliest market and can deal any competitor in a trade war a serious blow, causing unemployment and other effects that would arouse mass resistance. In 2009, Obama decided to level import duties on Chinese tires of 35 percent to preserve 1,200 jobs in the US tire industry. Later, according to the Peterson Institute analysis, due to the resultant price increase, American consumers annually had to pay USD 1.1 billion more—USD 900,000 for each position saved—, and this does not account for losses from China’s retaliatory actions, such as raising tariffs for US chicken exports, which reduced US exports of these to China by 90 percent, causing a loss of USD 1 billion. Trump should grasp this.
If Trump does not remain glued to principle as an objective in resolving problems but seeks Sino-US cooperation in a broad sense, he could introduce many more tradeoffs with China. A recent Trump foreign policy advisor, former CIA director James Woolsey, volunteered that the Obama administration’s opposition to the AIIB launched by China was a mistake, and that in office Trump’s attitude toward the bank and “One Road, One Belt” could be different.
China and the United States do not maintain an adversarial relationship, competitive and cooperative relations coexist, and this cannot change. Both sides face questions about hot spots (North Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and Taiwan), such that one can still expect “taking a step forward, looking for the next step.” US policy toward China has no space for trial and error, and if there were direct military confrontation or a trade war, these would not be reasonable choices and could incur a corresponding price. Finally, Chinese and Americans both have historically notable cultural and non-governmental relations; bilateral exchanges will only grow ever closer. In Sino-US relations the driving force is really China. If China prospers with an uninterrupted increase in national power and an economy continually rising, then in Sino-US relations Americans will have no way to stand in China’s path. Trump, who respects real power and has the responsibility now of sitting in the White House, should think twice and only then act.