Now that we are past the six-month mark of Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration is more aggressively addressing the transpacific issues raised during the presidential campaign. Two developments stand out in their approach to China and the East Asia region. First, contrary to early expectations, they have not deviated much from President Barack Obama’s policies, though Trump is less enamored with multilateralism and less concerned with human rights than was his predecessor. Second, the Trump administration’s prioritization of the North Korea nuclear issue has informed their other regional actions, including their strengthening of ties with Japan and South Korea and their heretofore limited efforts in the South China Sea and in U.S.-China economic relations.
However, in recent weeks the administration has diversified their approach, and they have been far more assertive in their dealings with China. Trump may yet touch off a Sino-American trade war, and he might employ brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula or in maritime Asia. A war of “values” between his administration and Beijing, however, still seems highly unlikely.
Campaign Promises and Current Realities
Since the election, there has been much debate about what a Trump presidency will mean for transpacific affairs. One school of thought suggests that Trump’s victory heralded the end of America as the dominant Pacific power. This perspective took shape during the presidential campaign, when Trump presented himself as a neoisolationist, “America first” nationalist who would avoid costly foreign engagements, reduce the nation’s international obligations and force allies to bear more of the defense burden. In the months after his win, supporters and detractors alike seemed to agree that he was recasting the postwar liberal order and perhaps even rejecting the notion of an American imperium. True to form, he proposed cuts to the State Department and foreign aid budgets; unsigned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; and expressed indifference to international human rights norms. While Trump’s backers have applauded the potential shifting of resources toward domestic priorities, his critics predict a gradual American retreat from the Western Pacific and a slow-burn handover of regional hegemony to China.
Other signs point in a different direction. Trump’s desire to challenge China may in fact mean a more muscular American presence in the region. Not only did he promise to take on Beijing’s trade practices, but his administration seems committed to strengthening the Pacific alliances, and he has already proposed a robust defense budget increase and a long-term naval expansion from 272 operational ships to 350. These proposals face formidable political and financial hurdles, yet even the smaller-scale naval enlargement suggested by his FY 2018 budget proposal would allow for greater power projection in the Pacific. In short, Trump may not be denying American exceptionalism after all, but rather proposing an amped-up, militaristic variant of it.
The contrast between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his presidential actions (to say nothing of his anarchic public statements) has added another layer of confusion. Candidate Trump ran on a largely domestic, populist, economic nationalist platform—a broadly realist program which emphasized economics more than security. He showed little foreign policy depth, and a clear Asia policy vision eluded him. His regional references rarely went beyond trade, and his security outlook consisted of a few unpolished statements about North Korea and China’s island-building. Yet China was a consistent target of his foreign policy broadsides. He promised to challenge Beijing on trade and currency, and he declared that Japan and South Korea would pay more for their own defense, even if this meant that they might develop nuclear weapons . (“South Korea’s going to have to start ponying up , OK?”)
Trump seemed to be living up to these positions after the election. He broke decades of protocol by accepting a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan and publicly questioning the “One China” policy, and within days of his inauguration he scuttled the TPP. He also welcomed some prominent hawks into his advisory circle. (We might call them the “anti-China hands.”) Last year, White House strategist Steve Bannon predicted that America and China would fight a war in the next five to ten years. Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, has asserted that the United States should get much tougher over China’s World Trade Organization (WTO) practices. Most hawkish of all is the National Trade Council director, Peter Navarro, who has long proclaimed China to be an adversary of the United States, as evidenced by the title of his book, Death by China . Even the relative moderates heading the Department of State and Commerce, Rex Tillerson and Wilbur Ross, hopped onto the bandwagon. Tillerson suggested during his confirmation hearings that China be blocked from access to artificial islands in the South China Sea, while the otherwise Sinophilic Ross has called China the “most protectionist country.”
But once the top positions were filled, there were signs of moderation, if not exactly clarity. Trump walked back his earlier comments on the “One China” policy, and he had a productive tête-à-tête with President Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that he saw no need for dramatic American military moves in the South China Sea. Tillerson, also had a positive meeting with Xi in Beijing in which he endorsed the Chinese government’s phrasing that Sino-American ties are built on “non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and . . . win-win solutions.”
Clearly the president and his team had learned something about the delicate nature of the Sino-American relationship, the importance of certain shared interests and the many potential pitfalls of rash decisions. Moreover, other perspectives were offsetting the aggressive nationalism of the Navarro/Bannon wing. Tillerson is a businessman with plenty of international experience. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster is well aware of Beijing’s strategic capabilities but is not particularly China-obsessed. Trump’s ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, is a free-trade advocate who has known President Xi for three decades. National Economic Council director Gary Cohn has emerged as a major influence on the administration’s trade outlook. And the Hawaii-based commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Admiral Harry Harris, has been working hard to shore up the Pacific alliances from the front lines. Of course, much depends on who wins the ear of this capricious president, and North Korea’s increasingly provocative missile tests may tilt the balance toward confrontation. But at least Trump can now draw on a broad array of opinions.
Trump’s Regional Posture at the Six-Month Mark
On the regional security front, Trump’s prioritization of the North Korean nuclear issue has impelled his administration to stand firmly behind the alliances with Japan and South Korea. He is particularly bullish on Japan: He and President Shinzo Abe appeared thick as thieves during the latter’s February visit to America, and the two sides have repeatedly reaffirmed their joint stand against North Korea. Mattis praised Japanese contributions to the alliance, calling it “a model of cost sharing and burden sharing,” and reiterated U.S. recognition of Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, a position that has caused friction with Beijing. In recent months, Japan has even sent its largest warship, the Izumo helicopter carrier, to conduct drills with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal —Japan’s most significant naval ventures since 1945.