What Donald Trump Should Do in Asia

Donald Trump at a campaign event at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Michael Vadon

Out of the gate, Mr. Trump has already signaled that Asia is high on his agenda--and much needs to be done. 

The new President’s historic campaign has generated a potent cocktail of anxiety, mistrust, and intrigue in key capitals throughout the Asia-Pacific. Mr. Trump’s call with Taiwan’s President Tsai-ing Wen shook the theological basis of U.S. posture and foreign policy in Asia. While it is true that it was just a phone call, many in Asia view it as a possible indicator of wholesale changes in U.S. foreign policy. President Trump’s efforts to challenge China on a range of strategic and economic interests are being closely watched (and privately welcomed) by most partners and allies throughout the region who want to see more pressure and push back against Beijing. However, these same leaders fear that recent statements discrediting the One China policy are an ominous harbinger of things to come. Leaders in Asia are carefully studying Mr. Trump’s words to determine whether or not they reflect a true policy shift, or are merely part of a negotiating strategy toward a larger end-game. Throughout the first view critical days of of his presidency, President Trump needs to send a powerful signal of reassurance.

Asian nations crave stability, but from Tokyo to Canberra, leaders and elites are experiencing tremendous uncertainty and anxiety. We are already seeing how that anxiety can translate into behavioral changes, as countries begin to hedge against the possible end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by engaging with the lower-standard and China-centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Even strategic allies like Japan who have already enjoyed strong leader-level engagement with Mr. Trump are taking quiet steps to accelerate their internal dialogue on “autonomous deterrence”--a code-word for acquiring more overtly offensive capabilities like cruise missiles--given President Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the role of alliances. Both of these indicators--one on the trade ledger and the other in the security realm--could easily spiral out of control and present real risks to U.S. interests in the long-term. Going forward, Mr. Trump should advance a near-term strategy that seeks to integrate his considerable business experience and knowledge of Asia with a gameplan premised on strategic reassurance, in addition to the articulation of a go-forward Asia strategy.

Out of the gate, President Trump has already signaled that Asia is high on his agenda. On January 27 he will likely meet again with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, this time in Washington. He should use this opportunity to announce that he will travel to Asia two times in 2017 for a set of strategic engagements. The first visit should focus on our allies and partners and include stops in Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore. Japan and Korea are the two most important strategic allies in East Asia and with an ever evolving set of security risks from North Korea and China, a visit to both sends a strong signal of determination and commitment to our treaty allies. This will be particularly important for Seoul given the tumultuous and historic political changes underway. In addition, Singapore plays a critical role as a strategic partner and counselor for the U.S. in Asia and a hub for 21st century commerce and trade. An initial visit will help President Trump increase his understanding and frame his vision of U.S. efforts in Asia.

The President should also make an early commitment to travel to Southeast Asia in the fall of 2017. U.S. partners in Southeast Asia are anxious that Mr. Trump will be less interested in participating in ASEAN-led meetings that focus more on form over substance. However, the theatrics of geopolitics in Asia place substantial demand on presence and form--an area of real strategic understanding by President Trump. Furthermore, Mr. Trump and his team should make clear that ASEAN and the East Asia Summit need to continue to take steps toward more action-oriented outcomes. Leaders in ASEAN should be anxious about  President Trump and his team losing interest in the regional forum if it lacks a strong and deliberate agenda.  In addition, a critical and emerging strategic partner in Vietnam is preparing to host the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) Leaders meeting. A strong showing by Mr. Trump will be critical to underscore America’s continued strength as the largest investor in Asia and also provide a unique platform to articulate an economic and trade strategy for the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region going forward. A central tenet of this effort should be a framework commitment that seeks to advance a forward looking trade and economic agenda.

As part of the process of strategic reassurance. President Trump should instruct his Cabinet to develop a gameplan for sustained high-level engagement in Asia for 2017. One consistent feature of diplomacy in Asia is the tyranny of distance that separates Washington from the heartbeat of the region. Senior officials are busy, particularly during a transition period, but given that many of them are seasoned business executives they must understand that attention and focus at the outset will be essential to develop strong working relationships and send a signal of engagement from day one. A comprehensive Cabinet-level effort will also help energize and align bureaucracies early on to focus on Asia as a key pillar of Mr. Trump’s strategic vision. In many ways, the professional services in the U.S. Government have the opportunity to act as an early force multiplier for President Trump and his Cabinet if they are given a clear demand signal at the beginning. This is the time to start.