Asia was the subject of some of Donald Trump’s most controversial statements during the presidential campaign. Among other things, Trump demanded that Japan and Korea pay up for their own defence (when in fact both countries already make substantial contributions to maintaining US bases and troop deployments), and suggested that they – ‘like others’ – should acquire nuclear weapons for their own security. He has also accused China of ‘adventurism’ in the South China Sea and of building ‘a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen’.
His most repeated talking points have been about China’s massive trade surplus with America and its track record as a ‘currency manipulator’. He has pledged to officially label it as such to bring more trade disputes to the WTO, and to use ‘every lawful presidential power’ to stop its illegal activities, including ‘the theft of America’s trade secrets’.
More broadly, he has pledged to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, painstakingly negotiated over the years with Japan and Korea. He has declared his intention to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, but also argued that North Korea is ‘100 % in the hands of China’. And he has been a long-standing critic of Pakistan, explaining during the campaign that there was ‘a need to keep 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan because it is adjacent to Pakistan with nuclear weapons’.
Above all, he has stated in answers to questions about his China policy that he will be ‘unpredictable’. This sums up the predicament that China and its neighbours are in. Unpredictability is probably, after ethical lectures, what China’s leaders dislike most in their foreign partners. Likewise, in the frozen conflict that North Korea has embodied for the past 63 years, any new development sets off as much anxiety as hope for positive change.
But beyond its unpredictability, what else can we say about Trump’s likely foreign policy ?
There are signs that he will continue Barack Obama’s policy of ‘leading from behind’. The avoidance of overt commitment has allowed Obama to keep clear of conflicts that are not in the immediate US interest – something which is very much a priority for Trump. ‘Closet isolationism’ is how many American hawks – and anxious Asian allies – have tended to label the Obama administration. This could be about to make way for overt isolationism. One should factor in that US interventionism has been strongly criticised abroad, leaving scars on America’s traditional internationalism.
Yet Donald Trump has also benefitted from a large degree of support among the US military, has criticised Obama’s irresolution in the face of the Islamic State, and has repeatedly asserted his goal to show strength. His policy is therefore likely to alternate or bifurcate between deal-making with those who are ready to join him, and unpredictable shows of strength. What seems to be sure is that previous commitments or the needs of allies will not override American self-interest.
Finally, we should not read too much into campaign trail speeches. Ronald Reagan, who rode into the White House denouncing the abandonment of Taiwan, signed with China a deal to limit arm sales to Taiwan less than two years later. George W. Bush, who coined the expression ‘strategic competition’ with China during his campaign, ended up with the best relations ever since the founding of the PRC.Economics may dictate much of Trump’s engagements. The US defence budget hovers around $750 billion a year, while Japan’s is slightly above $50 billion. Requests for more burden-sharing are likely. There is also no question that China, as an economic power on the rise, has more long-term potential for harm than Russia, a military power but a declining economic actor. Given the regime neutrality of America’s new conservatives, a Trump administration is less likely to let itself be baited by Russia’s Putin than a Democrat one. And it is likely to give its full attention to the overall balance of interests with China. It is far less optimistic than any of its predecessors about the benefits of economic relations with China.
Trump’s campaign speeches have suggested that he will attempt to engineer a revolution in American foreign policy and directly confront an increasingly assertive China. Aside from the unreliability of campaign rhetoric, there are two reasons we should doubt that this will come to pass. The first is that conservatives tend to get along with predictable authoritarian leaders like President Xi. And the second is that doing so would require a consistent attention on international issues that does not sit well with his innate personality or with his largely domestic interests.