Inauguration Watch: Asia Foundation on Asian Views of the US



This blog cares deeply about Asia and while I was heartened that Prime Minister Abe thought he could work with president-elect Trump, the two main foreign policy appointments to date—Michael Flynn and Michael Pompeo—were not encouraging. Both seem fixated on the Middle East, terrorism and issues such as Benghazi, interrogation techniques and bulk surveillance. To me, these seem broadly out of line with the larger geostrategic challenges the US faces with respect to the world economy, Russia, China and the broader Asian landscape, including in Northeast Asia.

Under the leadership of Harry Harding (University of Virginia) and Ellen Laipson (President Emeritus of the Stimson Center), the Asia Foundation has provided the service of collating Asian views of the American role in the region. The report relies on a series of meetings and is structured around chapters on the concerns expressed by groups of practitioners and scholars from three sub-regional groupings: South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. (Full disclosure: Marc Noland was a consultant to the report.) The report also contains a long US perspective by Harding and Laipson and a speculation on the future of Asia by Wajahit Ali, Chheang Vannarith and Zhao Kejin.

As with all such reports that purport to collate a lot of information, the text no doubt reflects in the last instance the priors of its authors. Nonetheless, undertaken during the heat of the election campaign, the findings can be summarized by one word: anxiety. If one theme underlies the report it is that countries in the region see both the advantages—and the influence and risks—of a rapidly growing China. There is no way that the region will avoid being drawn into China’s economic and political orbit. But at the same time, there is strong interest in the US playing a balancing strategic role, and not simply through its military presence. To be sure, there is much that is unknown about Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, and the administration should certainly be given a chance at some on-the-job training. But a simple tabular layout of the recommendations and comment on some of the findings suggests both potential lines of divergence and corresponding risks.

Asia Foundation Report Recommendations

Witness to Transformation Commentary

Maintain a robust, sustained, and consistent American presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Trump surrogates are sending assurances, particularly with respect to the US military presence in the region. But effects of alliance comments resonated powerfully and will take concerted efforts to neutralize, even in South Asia.   

Support Asian regional architecture and institutions. 

A core component of the Obama rebalance, this would not seem to be a Trump administration priority. It will be interesting to see if the president-elect shows up at meetings of APEC and the EAS.

Ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

A surprisingly strong concern in all three subregions, even South Asia. India, too, is asking whether the US remains committed to an open trade order, as it sees TPP as a proxy for US interest in trade and investment.

Rethink U.S. strategy on the Korean peninsula. 

The Northeast Asia group concluded that strategic patience is a failure and that the US needs to move toward talks. If foreign policy takes on a harder edge, this is even less likely than under Obama.

Pursue a balanced approach to China

The consistent theme is “don’t make us choose between the US and China.” The “peace through strength” approach outlined above does not talk much about the “engagement” side of the equation.


The Southeast Asia group emphasized the importance of the US showing the flag in the South China Sea, for example through FONOPs. Trump is likely to concur, but signing UNCLOS is unlikely.

Do not abandon Afghanistan.

The South Asia group identified US policy on Afghanistan as the key signal the US will send to the region. Mr. Trump’s statements suggest wariness of engagement, but if foreign policy shifts right, Afghanistan could be seen as another front in the terror war that would require continued commitment.

Continue to play a leading role in nontraditional security. 

There was surprising consensus in the report around the importance of the US leading on climate change; South Asia is particularly vulnerable. This seems unlikely to transpire.

Continue to project American soft power.

Mr. Trump may develop his own version of soft power, but the sort of public diplomacy envisioned here—emphasizing US values, educational exchanges, cultural ties—is not a Trump strong suit. Moreover, the US image has been damaged by the polarization of the election campaign. Who wants to emulate the American model at this juncture?

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