The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s Asia team is missing in action

President Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 6. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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Nearly 100 days into his administration and amid a growing crisis with North Korea, President Trump has so far failed to install Asia policy officials in several key posts across the government, a situation experts say is hampering strategy development, slowing relationship-building with key allies and potentially dangerous if a conflict erupts.

Trump himself seems active on Asia issues, meeting with leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in his first few months in office. On Wednesday, the White House will host U.S. senators for a briefing on the North Korean nuclear issue. Senior officials have toured Asia, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and most recently Vice President Pence.

But none of Trump’s top officials had deep Asia experience before joining the administration, and inside their departments nearly all of the Asia-related political-appointee positions remain unfilled or staffed by temporary civil servants. There is no appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, no assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs and zero Trump ambassadors to Asia are in place. Only one, nominee for Beijing Terry Branstad, has even been submitted for consideration to the Senate.

“These are not folks who really know a lot about Asia, so they really need help from some serious people,” said one GOP Asia hand who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution.

The one bright spot in the administration’s Asia team has been Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council senior director for Asia, who was originally brought in by former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter in Beijing, has been handling the bulk of the Asia policy work along with his small team of civil servants inside the White House.

He traveled to Asia with Tillerson and Mattis, separately. He led a North Korea policy review that produced a policy entitled “maximum pressure and engagement.” He participated in preparing for the Trump-Xi summit, although Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner played the major role in organizing those meetings. But several Republican Asia experts told me that Pottinger doesn’t have the bandwidth or the mandate to run Asia policy all on his own.

Several GOP Asia experts have been interacting with the Trump administration in one form or another, but very few have actually joined up. There are various reasons for the growing disconnect between the administration and the Asia expert community.

Some top Asia experts have been deemed persona non grata in Trump world because of their opposition to the president during the campaign. Other top former officials were more careful talking about Trump but are nevertheless in limbo. Former NSC senior director Victor Cha has been discussed internally for a top position but was never offered a job or explicitly told he was not wanted. Ashley Tellis, a top India expert, was initially considered strongly for ambassador to India, but was later taken out of consideration for allegedly not disclosing some of his anti-Trump statements.

Former Pentagon official Michael Pillsbury has been informally helping the Trump team since before the election and was on the list for consideration as ambassador to Singapore. But now that job may go to K.T. McFarland, who is being ushered out of her role as deputy national security adviser.

Some Asia experts remain in consideration despite having anti-Trump statements on their records. Former State Department official Christian Whiton is currently posted inside the East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau at the State Department as part of the temporary “beachhead” team. He is considered a leading contender to be assistant secretary there.

During the presidential primaries, Whiton wrote for the Fox News website that Trump’s foreign policy comments made him sound like “a teenager who has failed every quiz during the semester but implausibly promises to save the day by acing the final.” Days after the election, he wrote that Trump ought to receive the Nobel Prize.

There are some indications that help may be on the way. At the Pentagon, Mattis has reportedly chosen retired Army Col. Joseph Felter to be deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia. Administration sources said that the assistant secretary of defense for Asia job could soon go to Bert Mizusawa, a major general in the U.S. Army Reserve who was part of the Trump campaign.

But there’s still no undersecretary of defense for policy, following Mattis’s failed attempt to gain White House agreement to give that post to veteran ambassador Anne Patterson. One top contender for the job is Randy Schriver, an Asia expert who served in the State Department under Colin Powell.

On my recent trip to South Korea and Japan, several officials told me they simply don’t have interlocutors on the U.S. side and therefore can’t begin to make real progress on policy or strategy. More pressingly, they don’t know who to call if there were a real emergency.

If the Trump team really wants to complete President Barack Obama’s unfulfilled pivot to Asia, or to prepare for the worst-case scenario on the Korean Peninsula, they will need real experts to do it, the sooner the better.