Inauguration Watch: Trump’s Asia Policy: The Basics



President-elect Trump sits atop a heterogeneous political coalition, and perhaps nowhere is this fact more visible than with respect to foreign policy. On the one hand are Trump’s populist and more idiosyncratic views: the preoccupation with alliance burden-sharing, the aversion to free trade agreements, caution with respect to intervention, the soft-spot for Vladimir Putin. On the other hand are the foreign policy views of the Republican establishment, which veer more in the direction of a liberal Realpolitik: alliances for balancing the likes of Putin and Xi, a more forward posture in crises such as those in Syria, and a commitment to free trade and investment.

It is hard to know exactly how these two strands will be reconciled and appointments will matter. But we have somewhat more to go on with respect to the general outlines than is recognized. We focus today on the basics—what Trump and his surrogates have actually said that is of relevance to Asia—while underlining the widely-varying expectations that persist with respect to Korea.    

Mr. Trump made one substantive speech on national security issues during the campaign, in Philadelphia on September 7. It did not take him long to get to the point: in its preamble, Trump revived Ronald Reagan’s use of the phrase “peace through strength.” But for some reason, the media has generally not focused on how much “strength” the President-elect plans to purchase. The scale of the military build-up is stunning in its scope: an increase from a 490,000 to 540,000-troop army; a 50% increase in the number of Marine battalions (from 23 to 36); an additional 85 fighter aircraft; and most significant for Asia, an increase in surface ships and submarines from 276 to 350. This well exceeds the Navy’s FY 2017 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan projects which anticipate a peak of 313 battleforce ships by FY 2025 before trending down to 292 ships in FY 2046. This came in addition to strong commitments to develop ballistic missile defense, offensive as well as defensive cyber capabilities, and to undertake the nuclear force modernization that Trump raised in the second debate and which is in any case a legacy of the Obama administration. The spending required to meet these targets will require a lifting of the 2011 Budget Control Act caps (the “sequester”), but that policy change is credible given Trump’s Keynsian proclivities and even Democratic buy-in.

That the “peace through strength” approach has particular relevance to Asia was underlined in an important Foreign Policy essay by Trump advisors Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro; it appeared the day before the election and was entitled “Donald Trump’s Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific.” This essay and other comments by surrogates suggest that Trump may already be walking back from his campaign positions. On the alliances, Gray and Navarro seem intent on providing assurances, reiterating the demand for more cost-sharing but underlining that “there is no question of Trump’s commitment to America’s Asian alliances as bedrocks of stability in the region.” We’ll see whether that was what Shinzo Abe heard in his 90-minute meeting with Mr. Trump, given that the Japanese Prime Minister described the meeting with the diplomatic kiss-of-death moniker: “candid.”

On economic policy toward the region, Gray and Navarro state boldly that “Trump will never again sacrifice the U.S. economy on the altar of foreign policy by entering into bad trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, allowing China into the World Trade Organization, and passing the proposed TPP.” My colleague Marc Noland takes these claims seriously and has demonstrated exactly why they are so costly. But Wilbur Ross, another Trump advisor, a successful investor known for his restructuring of distressed firms and a possible candidate for Commerce, outlines a much more transactional approach to trade policy. His comments on across-the-board tariffs against China deserve to be cited in full:

“Everybody says, oh he’s going to slap 45 percent tariff on everything out of China. That’s not what he said, and it’s not what he intends. What he actually said was if -- if it turns out that the Chinese yuan is 45 percent overvalued, or as much as 45, and if they won’t negotiate with us, then it may become necessary as a negotiating measure to threaten them with as much as a 45 percent tariff.”

But everyone knows that the yuan is appreciating, not depreciating and that the currency probably hasn't been significantly undervalued since mid-2015. Ross doesn't even focus on the obvious fallback of some enforcement actions, looking instead to deals that the Chinese might do—such as importing more natural gas—that would mitigate rather than inflame trade pressures.

“Peace through strength” and caution with respect to trade policy are long-run positions, but the Russian campaign in Syria underlines that it is crises—not well-laid plans—that will define the incoming administration. And with respect to Korea, expectations are all over the map. At one extreme, Professor Han Park—who has visited North Korea 50 times-- believes that Trump might actually follow through on his offer of a hamburger summit. A key player in this scenario: the Russians.

But most observers lean the other way. Former Six Party negotiator Christopher Hill was in Korea last week, and thinks a Trump administration might take pre-emptive action. In an important essay at Politico, Bruce Blair outlines exactly how a crisis on the peninsula could lead to a nuclear exchange. Starting with intelligence that the North Koreans go onto high alert, with weapons readied to launch, an escalation of rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and President Trump leads to a decision by one party or the other to actually use a nuclear weapon. Although I am dubious about the premise of Blair’s scenario—that Kim Jong Un would be so foolish as to signal an intention to launch a nuclear weapon—the problem is that no one knows exactly how such crises might evolve and that is the point. “Peace through strength” is an aspiration. As Syria shows, crises have their own logic, and it could well be a crisis in Northeast Asia that will test the incoming administration.

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