What Future for the Asia Pivot Under Trump?

How will President-Elect Trump follow up the Obama administration’s Asia pivot? Five Asia experts reflect on the region’s top priorities. 

December 14, 2016

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

The Obama administration spent eight years formulating a foreign policy vision that called for a central U.S. role in Asia to ensure the region’s stability, growth, and prosperity. Known as the “rebalance to Asia,” the policy involved coordinated efforts to boost U.S. defense, diplomatic, and economic ties with the Asia-Pacific. Asian leaders are now anxious to see what level of commitment Washington will dedicate to the region under U.S. President-Elect Donald J. Trump, whose positions on foreign policy remain unclear. Five experts reflect on the top priorities and challenges in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Australia.  

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[For a more detailed look, CFR experts Alyssa Ayres, Elizabeth C. Economy, Yanzhong Huang, Joshua Kurlantzick, Oriana Skylar MastroScott A. Snyder, and Sheila A. Smith weigh in on Trump and Asia in a series of blog posts.] 

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A security officer stands guard during the third plenary session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China, March 13, 2016.(Photo: Kim Kyung-hoon/Reuters)

Karen B. Brooks

The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia was felt in Southeast Asia on three fronts. First, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was an effort to bind the region’s economies more permanently to the United States. Four nations—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—signed the deal, but the framework’s architecture was designed to enable other regional players to join over time. President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s plan to withdraw from TPP represents a blow to the countries that stood to benefit from the agreement’s required reforms, as well as to the credibility of U.S. leadership on economic affairs. The immediate beneficiary of this void will almost certainly be China, which will likely advocate for its own preferred regional pact.

Secondly, the pivot encompassed efforts to strengthen U.S.-Asia defense partnerships, most notably with the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S.-Philippines alliance in particular had experienced a revival, until elections ushered in President Rodrigo Duterte, who spent much of his first six months in office railing against U.S. criticism of his bloody war on drugs.

Though Trump’s apparent affinity for strongmen and lack of interest in human rights may well defuse tensions with Manila in the short term, it does not yet herald a reboot of the U.S.-Philippines alliance. Trump’s transactional view of alliances, which includes an insistence that allies pay their fair shares for U.S. security guarantees, will do little to strengthen ties with a Philippine president who has already announced he wants U.S. troops out.

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“Increases in U.S. protectionism could hurt these export driven economies, and trade disputes with China could generate additional tensions.”

More importantly, central planks of Trump’s economic platform could provide real challenges to the Philippine economy. Any crackdown on illegal immigration in the United States could ensnare undocumented Filipino workers and affect remittances, a crucial source of revenue for the Philippines. Overall, remittances from overseas workers account for 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP. Trump’s intention to prevent U.S. companies from moving operations overseas could also cast a pall on growth prospects for the Philippines’ business process outsourcing sector, which accounts for another 10 percent of GDP.

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The United States is a top export destination for all major Southeast Asian economies, most of which are highly dependent on trade for growth. Increases in U.S. protectionism could hurt these export-driven economies, and trade disputes with China could generate additional tensions. Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric about Muslims and inflammatory views on Islam expressed by his nominee for National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, may similarly constrain important partnerships with Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslim majority nations and two of the region’s top economies.

The final piece of the Asia pivot was an investment in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including President Obama’s hosting of a summit of ASEAN leaders in California earlier in 2016. It is unclear whether Trump will have the patience for the organization’s often tedious protocols or share the view that a strong ASEAN is in the interest of the United States.

Bonnie S. Glaser

As the Trump administration takes shape, challenges in Asia will likely grow. North Korea will inch closer to securing the ability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear warhead. Trump and his national security team will need to decide whether to continue, tweak, or revamp the Obama administration’s approach of refusing negotiations until Pyongyang recommits to denuclearization. Reassuring increasingly anxious allies and partners will be another challenge, as uncertainty about U.S. commitment to the region is rampant. With the Trump administration set to declare the Trans-Pacific Partnership dead, regional angst will increase further. Asian countries will not stand still in the face of U.S. rejection of multilateral economic agreements, but rather will likely work together on trade deals and set pan-Asian rules for investment and technology standards. China’s economic statecraft throughout the region will continue to win friends and wield influence. Trump’s advisors will need to decide what follows in the wake of Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy.

“Trump’s advisors will need to decide what follows in the wake of Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy.”

An especially daunting challenge will be managing a contentious relationship between Washington and Beijing. Addressing the uneven economic playing field will likely be Trump’s top priority. Unilateral measures that Trump has threatened to impose, such as introducing tariffs on Chinese imports or declaring China a currency manipulator, will likely invite retaliatory actions that will heighten tensions. If the president-elect’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is followed by the creation of policies aimed at strengthening Washington’s ties with Taipei, Xi Jinping is likely to react strongly, and U.S.-China ties could take a nosedive. Whether the Trump administration will continue cooperation with Beijing in areas such as global governance, environmental protection, and pandemic disease control remains uncertain. These issues, along with climate change, have provided a cushion to counter divergence of interest on other issues and growing strategic competition. On the prickly issue of maritime security, Trump will have to decide how to respond to Chinese efforts to project greater influence in the East and South China Seas. Some observers have posited that Trump’s transactional nature may mean a willingness to engage in deal-making with Beijing. If so, what will be the nature of those deals and how will they be perceived by the rest of the region?

Although much of Asia hopes for clarity about Trump’s policy in the region soon, prior presidential transitions suggest that they could wait at least six months before the new team is fully established. At that point, bottom-up policy reviews will ensue and proposals will be teed up for the new president. Only then will Americans and the rest of the world have a clear sense of where Asia ranks in Trump’s overall foreign policy agenda and whether continuity or change will predominate. 

Daniel S. Markey

President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s incoming administration has shown little interest in the shifting tectonic plates of great power politics in Asia. There are good reasons to expect, however, that President-Elect Trump will double down on closer relations with India, carrying forward a bipartisan tradition that started during the Clinton administration. In the process, the United States is also likely to pursue a tougher line with Pakistan and a counterterrorism-first agenda in Afghanistan.

Trump’s business ties with Indian real estate developers, political links to right-wing Indian-American groups, and passion for Twitter set the stage for a close personal bond with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trump’s desire to tone down U.S. differences with Russia is also welcome in India, given that New Delhi continues to do business, including big defense deals, with Moscow. Trump’s tough talk about China’s trade practices also resonates in India, where similar concerns buttress India’s own protectionist trade practices. One area of possible U.S.-India tension will be Trump’s anti-immigration stance, as Indian nationals are top recipients of H1-B visas and India’s Muslim community is among the three largest in the world. Visa matters aside, Trump’s affinity for India will be reinforced by his perception that the country is a fellow victim of “radical Islamic terrorism,” which Trump’s national security advisor, Mike Flynn, sees as the singular, overarching threat facing the United States.

“A continuing U.S. tilt toward India will come at Pakistan’s expense.”

A continuing U.S. tilt toward India will come at Pakistan’s expense. Indo-Pakistani hostilities date to both nations’ independence from British rule in 1947, and Islamabad has long cultivated anti-Indian terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Flynn’s firsthand experience fighting Pakistan-based terrorists like the Haqqani network in Afghanistan make it even more likely that the Trump administration will take a more coercive, less patient approach with Pakistan. That could mean slashing military assistance and taking more direct action against Pakistan-based terrorists via drone, cross-border raids, and other covert activities.

At the same time, Trump is no fan of “nation building,” so Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to see sharp reductions in U.S. civilian development aid. In 2015, Pakistan received over $500 million in economic-related assistance, and under the Obama administration USAID has been active in a range of programs (PDF) related to energy, economic growth, stabilization, education, and health. In Afghanistan, a sharper focus on fighting terrorism could mean a further reduction and reshaping of the U.S. military presence there, one more devoted to killing militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and al-Qaeda than to building the capacity of Afghanistan’s armed forces.

It is at least conceivable that the Trump administration could translate a pro-India, counterterrorism-first agenda into effective leverage in negotiations with Islamabad, as well as with leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency. But this would be a challenging assignment, and one that would also run the risk of exacerbating regional tensions that have already spawned acts of international terrorism and regional war.

Michael Auslin

The big question in East Asia is whether President-Elect Donald J. Trump will disengage from the United States’ alliance structure or pursue the Obama administration’s Asia pivot even more aggressively.

Trump inherits an alliance system challenged by the rise of China and the ongoing North Korean nuclear threat. Territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, including U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines, have raised tensions and threatened an accident or miscalculation that could lead to an armed clash. In response, some countries are beefing up their defense. Japan, the main U.S. regional ally, has increased military spending, changed laws restricting defense cooperation, and deepened relationships with nations in Southeast Asia.

“Trump may be willing to challenge orthodoxy without rupturing the basis of U.S. policy in Asia.”

In response to these challenges and the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, Trump openly expressed reservations about Japan and South Korea during the campaign and gave little indication that he was particularly invested in maintaining the United States’ position in the region. Yet things began changing soon after his election.

In meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and speaking with Australian, South Korean, and Philippine leaders, Trump appears to be signaling that he will not precipitously upend Washington’s six-decade-old alliance system in Asia. Contrary to fears that he would end security commitments to Japan and South Korea, perhaps leading them to pursue independent nuclear capabilities, Trump instead reiterated the common ground the allies have in maintaining stability in Asia.

Trump may well stake out a more assertive U.S. stance in Asia, pushing the pivot beyond even what its progenitor intended. Trump’s call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first such high-level contact since 1979, could signal a potentially confrontational relationship with China. Nor has Trump walked back comments declaring China a currency manipulator and indicating he may impose sizeable tariffs on Chinese goods. As for Xi Jinping’s recent inroads with the Philippines, Trump has reportedly invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, demonstrating that he will try to counter China’s increasing influence in Asia.

None of this is to downplay uncertainties surrounding Trump’s Asia policy. Trump will be faced with a North Korean provocation, probably sooner rather than later, and must deal with a South Korea in the midst of a political crisis following a presidential impeachment. Trump has indicated he will scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, taking the United States out of expanding Asian trade pacts.

Still, it seems Trump may be willing to challenge orthodoxy without rupturing the basis of U.S. policy in Asia. If he manages to stabilize the U.S. position without causing a crisis among competitors or allies, then he may well be able to claim credit for further implementing the pivot he inherited from President Obama.

Aaron Connelly

There is broad agreement among policymakers in Australia that its interests are well-served by a rules-based international order defined by liberal institutions and norms. Institutions such as the East Asia Summit, which sits atop an open and inclusive regional diplomatic architecture, are essential to Australia as a middle power that has long sought the establishment of such an organization and a voice in deliberations over primary regional security questions. Norms such as freedom of navigation are also important to Australia, an isolated continent that depends on the principle for its prosperity and defense.

“Trump’s election has damaged the faith Australians and others in the region place in the United States as an external balancer and a force for economic and political liberalization.”

As a result, Australians on both sides of politics welcomed the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia, with its emphasis on protecting the integrity of a rules-based order in the region, and the specific steps the United States took to do so, including joining the East Asia Summit and conducting freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The election of Donald J. Trump has created considerable anxiety in Canberra. Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which pledged to put U.S. interests first and talked up his abilities as a deal-maker, has worried Australians that Trump might adopt a more transactional approach to relationships in the region.

Australians fear that under such an approach, support for critical principles could be traded away for temporary economic or security accommodations. Would Trump seek to make a deal with Beijing over primacy in the Pacific that sacrifices freedom of navigation and leaves U.S. allies exposed? Even if U.S. commitment to its alliance with Australia remains steadfast, the new administration could compromise the integrity of a rules-based order in the region and, consequently, Australian security.

Some uncertainty is normal during any transition to a new president, but Trump’s inexperience in foreign affairs and the lack of coherent vision among his advisors on Asia means that the uncertainty around the president-elect’s policies in the Asia-Pacific is greater than at any time in at least forty years.

Regardless of the position that Trump ultimately takes, his election has damaged the faith Australians and others in the region place in the United States as an external balancer and a force for economic and political liberalization. 

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