INASIA

Weekly Insights and Analysis

Views from the Region on U.S. Policy in Asia Today

March 28, 2018

By John J. Brandon

A symposium on U.S. policy toward Asia on March 15 in Hong Kong came at a particularly timely moment: In the week prior, President Trump unceremoniously removed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; announced he would be willing to meet North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, before the end of May; and raised tariffs on aluminum and steel, potentially setting off a trade war with allies and competitors alike.

Convened in partnership with the Hong Kong America Center and the Department of Asian and International Studies and the Southeast Asia Research Centre at City of University of Hong Kong, these talks, a year after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, were part of The Asia Foundation’s signature foreign policy initiative, “Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia” (AVARA), which brings together diverse perspectives from influential Asian thought leaders for ongoing discussions around U.S. foreign policy priorities in Asia. Approximately 50 people participated in the symposium, including the three Asian chairs of the project, Dr. Yoon Young-kwan, Dr. C. Raja Mohan, and Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, as well as American co-chair, Dr. Harry Harding. [Watch a video on AVARA with perspectives from the chairs.]

One year into his presidency, Trump has consistently questioned many long-standing assumptions as he outlined major departures in U.S. policy. Asians have responded to President Trump with a mix of fascination, confusion, concern, and befuddlement. The fascination comes from the drama that is regularly provided. The confusion comes from the frequent contradictory changes in policy statements, particularly about China, North Korea, and trade. These contradictions cause concern in policy circles in many Asian capitals and raise questions about whether the U.S. is committed to maintain a robust and sustained presence in Asia, aside from a military presence. President Trump’s unorthodox way of governing has befuddled many, causing some Asian nations to wonder if this is “the new normal” in international affairs, at least as it relates to the United States.

Some observers once feared that the U.S. might withdraw from the region. This does not appear to be the case. Many Asian leaders want the United States to maintain its robust, sustained, and balanced presence in Asia, but with policies that are clear, not contradictory. While the U.S. remains an important guarantor for the security of the Asia-Pacific, a strong economic component is also needed. There was an acknowledgement that although free trade may not be working, tariffs are not believed to be the right remedy to the problem. Other key points made in the symposium included:

  • The policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea, adopted by previous Democratic and Republican administrations, has been rejected. People were cautiously optimistic that economic sanctions are bringing North Korea to the bargaining table because of the government’s significant decrease in revenue. Hopefully, this will lead to a breakthrough for peace on the Korean peninsula. But what if talks between President Trump and Kim Jong Un fail? While the Trump administration should not reveal its hand early, is there a Plan B?
  • While President Trump praises President Xi Jinping and his leadership, he takes a more confrontational approach with certain Chinese policies as evidenced by economic tariffs and the recently passed Taiwan Travel Act. It is said that the U.S. and China are engaged in a “strategic competition,” but what does this mean, and how will such competition be waged? As for the future of U.S.-China relations, there was concern about a trade war or even a new Cold War. If this happens, will this spread to other parts of Asia? Asian nations, in general, want the U.S. to take a balanced approach to China without provoking it.
  • During his trip to Asia in November 2017, President Trump surprised Asian leaders by using the term “Indo-Pacific” rather than the more familiar term “Asia-Pacific” in describing the region. Underlying this shift was the judgment that India was critical for the construction of this new security architecture. Ultimately, how the term “Indo-Pacific is defined has important implications for how Asian nations view the United States in what many in Asia describe as an uncertain time and question whether America’s commitment to the region will be sustained.
  • President Trump has reaffirmed U.S. commitment to stabilize Afghanistan by raising the number of troops and changing the terms of their engagement to prevent a Taliban takeover of Kabul. President Trump does not appear to be looking for a winning strategy in Afghanistan, but to do enough to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table in the effort to bring a political resolution to the country. Will this be enough?
  • Participants said that many Asian leaders would like to see the United States continue to develop its “soft power,” in the region. But perhaps this is the biggest disappointment of the Trump administration thus far—with deep cuts proposed in the State Department and U.S. foreign assistance, there is concern about the United States’ ability to effectively conduct its foreign policy.
  • Interestingly, participants expressed that some are more concerned about deep divisions among the American people than they are about Donald Trump, although they see the president as a reflection of these divisions. There is a sentiment among some Asians that they would rather not take sides in these divisions or be caught up in a U.S. cultural war or its nationalistic sentiment.

One thing that has remained consistent is that Asia remains a vast, diverse, and complex region full of conflicting trends and differing interpretations. Asian nations, by and large, want an engaged United States in their region, but what should America’s role be? The answer remains to be seen. They don’t want the U.S. to be too close, but not too far, either. Thus, we’re likely to see a continued and constant pressure for the U.S. to speak about its role in Asia with greater clarity and precision.

John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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