President Trump is set to embark on a 12-day tour of Asia, by far the longest and most consequential foreign trip of his young presidency. Before he leaves, he might want to appoint an Asia policy team to make sure the countries of the region know his government is ready to engage them seriously.
Several top Asia policy jobs in the Trump administration remain vacant. There are a number of well-qualified candidates at various stages of the courting or vetting processes. The fact that Trump will be focusing on Asia exclusively for the first half of November should be an action-forcing event. The White House is on the clock to get things moving.
There are some positive signs. Administration sources said Trump is ready to announce his intent to nominate Randall Schriver to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, the top Asia policy job at the Pentagon. Schriver, who served in the State Department under Colin Powell, runs a think tank called Project 2049 Institute, which is focused on Asian security.
A well-respected China hawk, Schriver had the foresight not to sign any of the “Never Trump” letters that circulated around the Washington conservative foreign policy community during the primaries. Other top Asia experts have been banned from administration jobs for that indiscretion.
Administration sources also confirmed that former White House Asia official Victor Cha is set to be named U.S. ambassador to South Korea. No decisions are final until announced. Trump is set to arrive in Seoul on Nov. 7, where he will meet with President Moon Jae-in and speak before the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly.
The South Korean media has reported that the Secret Service is preparing for Trump to visit the demilitarized zone. Trump has been cagey about whether he will peer over the border into North Korea, as Vice President Pence did in April. There is an internal administration debate about whether going to the DMZ is a security concern.
Trump will begin his Asia trip Nov. 3 with a stopover in Hawaii. There he get a chance to directly interact with Adm. Harry Harris, who is under consideration to be ambassador to Australia. Harris has not been formally offered the job. Trump will also visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.
After stops in Japan, South Korea and China, Trump will visit Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit Nov. 10 in Danang. Before then, Congress should confirm Trump’s ambassador choice for Vietnam, Daniel Kritenbrink, a career foreign service officer who was nominated back in July. Trump will also visit Hanoi.
His last stop will be in the Philippines, where he will attend the U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit and meet with controversial President Rodrigo Duterte. The schedule released by the White House didn’t mention it, but administration officials said Trump will stay in Manila for the East Asia Summit, another multilateral gathering involving the ASEAN countries and eight other nations.
The fact that the Trump White House is considering so many traditional GOP Asia hands for these jobs is a positive sign that the administration is mending fences with a foreign policy community it has been wary of since the campaign.
“It’s a strong signal that the administration is reaching out to the expert community to bring them into the policy debates,” said Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s particularly important now given the various challenges the administration is facing across Asia.”
The Asia policy process thus far has relied heavily on National Security Council senior director for Asia Matt Pottinger, who is taking a lead role in preparing for Trump’s trip.
The Asia situation at the State Department is at a stalemate, administration officials said, because the White House does not want to nominate acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Susan Thornton to assume the role on a permanent basis. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists she is right for the role. The stalemate is likely to persist as long as Tillerson remains in his job.
Foreign governments know that in Washington personnel is policy, and if you don’t have the former, you can’t have the latter. Getting the personnel decisions done would go a long way to reassure nervous allies that the Trump administration sees Asia as a priority and that Washington isn’t quite as dysfunctional as it seems.