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Donald Trump’s America First agenda in Asia

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In Brief

In his first weeks in office, President Trump has moved quickly to implement his America First agenda through a slew of executive orders. Trade and immigration are his foreign policy focal points.

Trump’s America First agenda has several implications for foreign policymaking.


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First, the ideas that motivate foreign policy will now need to meet the threshold of proving concrete benefits to the United States. The metric thus far seems to be the creation of jobs, and Trump’s outing of companies rumoured to be moving jobs offshore has prompted hasty promises to stay home.

Those who populate the administration will not be from traditional sources of foreign policy expertise. These ‘never Trumpers’, who during the campaign argued against Trump’s candidacy, are now largely locked out of consideration for positions in the new administration.

Foreign policy is traditionally seen as the prerogative of the executive branch of government, but already it seems the US Congress and judiciary will claim their authority in shaping the president’s choices if he runs up against existing treaties or laws.

Broadly speaking, the new president has already demonstrated preferences for how he would like to pursue diplomacy in Asia. Trade policy seems destined for bilateralisation, and this could put US allies in a difficult spot. The new norms and rules of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) abandoned, these negotiations would likely focus exclusively on difficult market access issues — many of which have already been tackled during the TPP negotiations.

On the surface, closing the borders may seem to have little import for Asia, but it has stirred memories of past laws that barred Chinese immigrants and the unlawful detention of Japanese-Americans on the grounds that they were helping the enemy in wartime. And the metric of producing US jobs also suggests greater scrutiny of Asian companies doing business in the United States.

In the security realm too this penchant for bilateralism could, at the very least, suggest a diminished US role in the East Asia Summit or any of the other ASEAN-centred efforts to discuss regional security. US Asia policy could very quickly become politicised and its alliances subjected to greater popular scrutiny with little or no strategic assessment of their value to the region.

But, like his predecessors, President Trump will — and has already — run into Congress as he charts this new course. Asia policy has always reflected this tug and pull between the White House and Congress. One relationship is of particular interest to US legislators — the US relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since the Nixon administration pursued normalisation in the 1970s, US China policy has been contentious on Capitol Hill.

Already there are signs that the United States will organise its approach to Asia around its antagonism towards China. As president-elect, Trump tweeted several times about being willing to rethink the ‘one China’ policy in the wake of the phone call with President Tsai. Some of those associated with the campaign have also written about the need for a harder line towards Beijing, both in terms of taking a different approach to reducing the US trade deficit as well as upping US naval power in the region to contend with China’s maritime expansion.

In his confirmation hearing, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State made it very clear that the United States would challenge Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea. Rex Tillerson said: ‘We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed’.

This drew a quick reaction from China. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang quietly discouraged the United States from getting involved in the dispute, stating, ‘The situation in the South China Sea has cooled down as countries in the region have come round to the agreement. We hope that countries outside the region will respect such an agreement that serves the common interests of the region and beyond’. The more pugilistic writers at the Global Times went further. ‘Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish’.

For some of Trump’s advisors, Ronald Reagan’s call for ‘peace through strength’ still resonates, and this approach is largely welcomed by Washington’s Asian allies who rely on US military might for deterrence. But an escalation of tensions with China, especially over the sensitive issue of Taiwan, could make the already difficult military relations between Beijing and Tokyo far more unpredictable.

In contrast to the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance’ to Asia, it may be that no Asia policy emerges from this administration. Rather, the America First agenda will take one relationship at a time and define it in terms of President Trump’s priorities. The political resistance this could provoke may engender another wave of anti-American sentiment in Asia.

Over the longer term, the question will be how Asia responds to the Trump administration. Will the countries that signed on to the TPP, for example, continue on without the United States? Will they continue to advocate with the new US administration to return? Or, will they succumb to the allure of a bilateral deal that ensures market access?

While many in Asia seek close economic and strategic cooperation with the United States, Asian leaders may find that their publics are less inclined to compromise with Washington if the Trump administration hews too closely to an America First agenda. US power cannot be ignored, of course, but the status of the United States in Asia derives not only from its brute strength but also from its commitment to the ideals of democratic practice. Without popular support, the United States will find that governments in Asia will be far less ready partners in regional cooperation.

Sheila A Smith is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Towards Asian integration‘. 

One response to “Donald Trump’s America First agenda in Asia”

  1. Commentators continually cite Tillerson’s off the cuff remarks during his confirmation hearing as a guide to US policy. He was the nominee for Secretary of State not Defence. James Mattis was more discrete the following day in his remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee. For the record:

    After his confirmation hearing Rex Tillerson responded to a written question on the South China Sea from Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, with these words:

    “To expand on the discussion of U.S. policy options in the South China Sea, the United States seeks peaceful resolution of disputes and does not take a position on overlapping sovereignty claims, but the United States also does not recognize China’s excessive claims to the waters and airspace of the South China Sea. China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea. The United States will uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. If a contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners. The United States must be willing to accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms. If confirmed, I would look forward to working with interagency partners to develop a whole-of-government approach to deter further Chinese coercion and land reclamation as well as challenges to freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea.”

    In sum, Tillerson backed off from his earlier comments that the U.S. should block China’s access to its artificial islands. He added this important clarification, ‘If a contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners (emphasis added)’.

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