Public discussion of Donald Trump’s foreign policy has focused on the fight against terrorism and the U.S. relationship with Russia, and since the election the president-elect has nominated no one with Asia expertise to a senior position in his administration. That’s fueled concern among U.S. Pacific allies about where the region will stand among White House priorities during the next four years.
Behind the scenes, however, the Trump transition is preparing its own pivot to Asia. As the team that will implement that policy takes shape, what’s emerging is an approach that harkens back to past Republican administrations — but also seeks to actualize the Obama administration’s ambition of enhancing the U.S. presence in the region. Transition officials say the Trump administration will take a hawkish view of China, focus on bolstering regional alliances, have a renewed interest in Taiwan, be skeptical of engagement with North Korea and bolster the U.S. Navy’s fleet presence in the Pacific.
There are signs that Asia will in fact be a top focus of key officials. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, has been raising his concerns about China in meetings with senators in recent days. Attendees told me he is particularly clear about what he sees as the need to counter Chinese militarization and expansion in the South China Sea.
Transition sources also said Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, is keenly interested in Asia strategy. A former Naval officer in the Pacific Fleet, Bannon and other top Trump officials believe that President Obama’s Asia pivot largely failed due to what they see as insufficient defense spending during his administration, which undermined its promise to increase U.S. military power in the region.
On the ambassadorial level, Trump’s Asia appointments are outpacing those for other regions and include top Asia hands. Transition sources said Trump is close to selecting Ashley Tellis, a former White House official and renowned India expert, to be the next U.S. ambassador to India. China hands were reassured with Trump’s selection of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) to be his envoy in Beijing.
Japanese officials may not be thrilled about Trump’s expected selection of businessman William Hagerty as U.S. ambassador in Tokyo. But the Japanese government feels well respected due to Trump’s decision to honor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by making him the first world leader he met after the election.
Trump’s team is also busily filling out Asia-related positions in the national security bureaucracy. Matt Pottinger is expected to be named National Security Council senior director for Asia. Although his recent experience is in Afghanistan, Pottinger worked in China as a journalist for several years and is well regarded. Due to the smaller size of the new National Security Council staff, assistant secretaries for Asia at the State and Defense Departments could have critical roles in guiding Trump’s Asia policy. The transition team is considering top former George W. Bush administration officials for those two jobs, including former State Department deputy assistant secretary Randall Schriver and former White House Asia director Victor Cha.
There are good reasons to believe the Trump administration will have to devote attention to Asia in its first months. Trump’s appointment of Peter Navarro to head his National Trade Council is a sign that an economic clash with Beijing could come sooner rather than later. The Chinese also have a history of testing a new American president with some provocation.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are advancing quickly, and Trump has pledged to stop them. His team is considering secondary sanctions that would apply to companies that aid Kim Jong Un’s regime, which would create another point of tension with China. The details of several of the policies are not yet fleshed out.
“By necessity, the Trump administration will have to focus on Asia because events will drive it. We will have no choice. That’s the bottom line,” said Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon China official now at the American Enterprise Institute. “In terms of their strategic view of how to engage the alliances, we’re going to have to wait and see.”
A Trump focus on Asia has another big benefit for the incoming administration: It gives Trump a legitimate, if somewhat self-serving, justification for warming ties with Russia. The administration can argue that Russia as a regional power is not nearly as problematic as a globally ascendant and ever more aggressive China.
Obama’s Asia pivot had high expectations but fell short on delivery. For the Trump administration, the dynamic is shaping up the opposite way. If Trump team members can follow through on their plans and avoid unnecessary crises, Trump may just finish the Asia pivot that Obama started.