Insights and Analysis

How Asia Is Viewing the Trump Presidency

August 15, 2018

By Harry Harding

This week, we present an essay from the Foundation’s Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: An Early Assessment of the Trump Presidency. This project convened a symposium of influential Asian thought leaders for ongoing discussions of U.S. foreign policy priorities in Asia. Former Asia Foundation trustee Harry Harding reflects on the participants’ views.

The symposium on which these essays draw, convened by The Asia Foundation, the American Center of Hong Kong, and City University of Hong Kong earlier this year, provided a valuable opportunity to hear Asian assessments of the Trump administration’s Asia policy 14 months after the new president assumed office. As he did throughout his campaign, President Trump entered office questioning many of the long-standing assumptions underlying American foreign policy, both regionally and globally. He promised to reject both these assumptions and the foreign policy elites who championed them. Now in the second year of his term, the president has repeatedly challenged America’s commitment to free trade, its reliance on regional trade and security architecture, and its devotion to human rights. How do thoughtful Asian observers evaluate these developments? And do they regard the president’s views simply as a temporary consequence of his unexpected election that will be swept away at the end of his term, or as deeper, more enduring trends that foreshadow the decline and retreat of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region? Interestingly, the opinions expressed by symposium participants on these issues were neither as polarized nor as extreme as one may encounter in other parts of the globe, including the United States. Instead, they reflected a blend of relief, approval, confusion, and concern across a large number of important regional issues. Their complex and often subtle analysis warrants careful consideration by their American counterparts.


The relief expressed by many of the Asian participants reflected their realization that many of the preconceptions about the incoming Trump administration, based on Trump’s campaign statements, the views of his political base, the positions of some of his advisers, and the characterizations by his opponents, have thus far proved unfounded. Many Asians had feared that Trump would turn his back on the region, as part of an isolationist policy suggested by one of his main campaign slogans, “America First.” To the surprise of many, however, Trump made a long, six-country trip to Asia early in his administration, not only meeting leaders in each of the countries he visited, but also participating in the APEC meetings in Danang and the East Asian Summit in the Philippines. Asian observers have therefore concluded that while Trump is indeed a unilateralist, he is not as much of an isolationist as some had expected. Asian participants were also relieved that Trump has backed away from his early reservations about the value of key American alliances in the region, especially those with Japan and South Korea, and has now recognized their essential role in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.


The Asian participants also expressed approval of some of the Trump administration’s specific initiatives toward the region. They endorsed his modification or abandonment of some earlier policies that they consider to have been seriously flawed, including the policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea and the protracted but inconclusive dialogues with China on security and trade issues. Several participants noted that Trump’s tougher diplomacy toward both countries had achieved some early successes, gaining pledges from Xi Jinping to open the Chinese economy more fully to imports and foreign investment, and expressions by Kim Jong-un of his willingness to resume negotiations over his nuclear and missile programs. Nonetheless, they retain significant concerns about the prospects for U.S. relations with Pyongyang and Beijing, as will be described more fully below.

In addition, some analysts in the region appear gratified that, as one put it, the “neglect of [South Asia] is coming to an end,” with a greater focus on the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific, increased attention to India and Pakistan, and a renewed commitment to Afghanistan, including a modification of what they saw as an excessively accommodative policy toward Pakistan and overly restrictive rules of engagement in Afghanistan. This is not to say that they think this new American approach is guaranteed success, but rather that they believe these changes are moving U.S. policy in the right direction.


These positive assessments were heavily qualified by the fact that, even a year after the inauguration, there remained much confusion about the Trump administration’s policy toward the region. This is the result of clear differences of opinion among some members of the administration on major issues including China and North Korea; the lack of coordination among the White House, the Congress, and parts of the bureaucracy on trade policy; and, above all, the unusually rapid turnover in key positions in the administration, including the national security advisor, the director of the National Economic Council, and the secretary of state. Trump’s personal style adds to the bewilderment, particularly how the president has combined harsh criticism of both China and North Korea with statements of respect and even friendship for both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, and the way in which his impulsive use of social media raises doubts about the sustainability of his administration’s policies over time.

In addition, the implications of some of the Trump administration’s new initiatives remain unclear. At the top of this list is the concept of an “Indo-Pacific” region, focused on the East Asian, South Asian, and South Pacific democracies, especially the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. Does this new formulation replace the more traditional idea of the Asia-Pacific, or merely complement it? Will Washington try to institutionalize the concept through the creation of Indo-Pacific organizations and dialogues, or will it remain a more informal grouping? Does it supplant the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” or is it simply a way of rephrasing it? Those who perceive the Indo-Pacific concept mainly as a reformulation of his predecessor’s pivot are relatively relaxed, although they wonder how enthusiastic the response of the other members of this proposed alignment will be. But those who are deeply invested in the original Asia-Pacific concept, and especially the principle that ASEAN should be the center of regional activities, expressed greater concern about what they fear is an implicit downgrading of ASEAN’s place in the Trump administration’s view of Asia, as well as the possible risks in excluding China from this new grouping.


Along with some approval and much confusion, there remains considerable concern about aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to the region. One worry is the glacially slow pace in filling several key ambassadorships and high-level positions in the State Department. That, together with an apparent disregard for the familiar Asia specialists in the Washington policy community, suggests the danger that the administration will lack the depth of professional expertise needed to manage key issues, especially in a crisis. This was believed to be especially true of the Korean peninsula. One participant even warned that the Trump administration did not have enough experienced diplomats in place to prepare his summit meeting with Kim Jong-un and to negotiate successfully with North Korea.

A still greater reason for concern is that, just as he promised, Trump has been an extremely unconventional president. In part, this is a matter of style. He has replaced the cautious and restrained styles of earlier administrations with a more impulsive, assertive, even aggressive approach to important issues in the region. As one participant put it, “Asians expected Americans to be nice,” but they are now facing a While House that is blunter and tougher than the previous administrations they were used to.

In addition to adopting a rougher style, Trump has dramatically changed American policy on a number of key issues by adopting less accommodative and more assertive positions.

On North Korea, he has replaced the policy of “strategic patience” with a policy of “maximum pressure,” including threats and displays of military force as well as increasingly stringent economic sanctions.

On trade, he is seen as both a protectionist and a unilateralist, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that his predecessor negotiated, demanding a renegotiation of the terms of the bilateral free-trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, and questioning the effectiveness of the World Trade Organization in mediating trade disputes among its members.

On China, while not completely abandoning the traditional American policy of “engagement” with Beijing, he has demanded a more “results-oriented” approach. He has harshly criticized China’s trade surpluses with the United States, denounced China’s trade and investment policies, and threatened or imposed higher tariffs on Beijing in response to its alleged dumping of steel and aluminum and its methods of acquiring intellectual property. While there is concern about a possible “trade war” between the two countries, Asians are giving investment issues equal if not greater attention. They note that an increasing number of Chinese proposals for investments in the United States have been rejected by the U.S. government, especially in an expanding list of sectors that Washington considers strategically important, even as the United States demands greater access to investment opportunities in China.

In the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy continues to engage in freedom-of-navigation operations that challenge China’s potential control of the sea lanes passing through this important body of water, and has urged its allies inside and outside the region to participate in these exercises as well.

While acknowledging the issues that led to these changes, and while agreeing in many cases that a stronger American stand is desirable, Asian participants expressed concern that Washington’s pressure tactics may not obtain the desired results. As one put it, in some cases pressure seems to be working, but in others it may not succeed, or may even prove counterproductive. The main focus of such concern was Trump’s policy toward the rise of China, which, as our 2016 report suggested, remains the issue that receives the greatest attention in the region. The dominant view seemed to be that it was indeed necessary to balance China’s growing clout in the region and to criticize some of its objectionable trade, investment, and security practices, but it was also important to avoid provoking a Chinse overreaction. In particular, Asians do not want to see either an all-out trade war or a strategic confrontation between the two countries, and doubt remains as to whether the Trump administration will strike that balance effectively. Doing so will be difficult, especially given that the U.S. will receive conflicting advice on this issue from its allies and friends in the region, largely because the members of ASEAN are deeply divided on how best to deal with China, as are the publics in several important Asian countries.

On other key issues, the participants expressed similar concerns. On North Korea, there was both surprise and relief that Washington and Pyongyang were backing away from a military confrontation and moving toward a summit meeting in midyear. However, there was considerable unease about the results of the negotiations. What would Trump demand of Pyongyang, and what would Pyongyang demand in return? Would Trump give too much, or would he get too little? Once again there seemed to be no consensus about what the desirable outcomes would be. There was no agreement about whether a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons production and ballistic missile deployments would be acceptable, or whether the United States should continue to insist on complete denuclearization of the North. There was similarly no agreement on whether the United States should raise human-rights concerns in the negotiations, particularly with regard to the Japanese and American citizens who have been abducted or held by Pyongyang, or whether it should focus only on the security questions that some regard as more important. Nor was there unanimity on whether the United States should withdraw some or all of its forces from South Korea as part of a denuclearization agreement with North Korea or a peace agreement to end the Korean War.

Thus, the original concern about an outbreak of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula has been replaced by a concern about the outcome of the likely negotiations between the North and the United States. The worry here is either that the negotiations will “succeed,” but on terms that some in the region would regard as inadequate or unacceptable, or that the talks will fail to reach any agreement at all. In that case, the risk of a military confrontation on the peninsula would reemerge, and as one participant warned, “the situation may become more dangerous than before.”

South Asians are concerned about a different aspect of the Trump administration’s policy: its approach to the Muslim world. As one pointed out, “the world’s largest concentration of Muslims is between Dacca and Karachi.” American treatment of Muslim immigrants and Muslim-Americans, and its position on employment visas for well-educated South Asians, will therefore be watched just as closely as American policy toward the Middle East and South Asia, and will profoundly influence regional views of the United States under Trump.

On trade, the countries that agreed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership were disappointed that the United States withdrew from the agreement, although they acknowledge that opposition to the TPP extended across a broad spectrum of America’s political leadership, including presidential candidates in both parties. They are pleased that the Trump administration has expressed interest in rejoining if the United States can get a better deal, but are uncertain about what his terms will be. The eleven countries that agreed to join a smaller grouping as a replacement for the larger original, the so-called TPP-11, have suspended their acceptance of the most important “WTO-plus” concessions that the United States had originally demanded, and they may now resist reinstating them, let alone agreeing to even tougher measures as part of a renegotiated TPP. The prospect of reviving the TPP on terms acceptable to Washington is therefore uncertain at best. Some observers also question the desirability of creating a trade agreement that would exclude China, especially since China is promoting its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement as an alternative to the TPP. On the other hand, some believe that a resurrected agreement on the TPP might help persuade China to change its trade and investment policies in favorable directions. Again, therefore, the Trump administration faces an Asia that has not reached consensus on a key issue.


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the discussions in Hong Kong was the way in which the Asian participants viewed not only the Trump administration’s Asia policy but also the debate over that policy in the United States. While expressing, as already noted, many uncertainties and concerns about Trump’s approach to Asia, the Asian participants took a more balanced and nuanced view than is sometimes heard elsewhere, finding some things to praise as well as others to criticize. One said that the Trump administration “has not been a disaster,” even though many Americans characterize it that way. And they also recognized that this more balanced assessment differentiates them from the more extreme views they have heard from colleagues in the United States. Some said bluntly that they did not want to be drawn into that polarized American debate, especially if they were pressed to take sides.

This is because Asians do not completely reject the idea that Trump should be, at least to a degree, a “disruptive” president. As already indicated, they believe that some past American policies toward their region needed to be reconsidered and modified. But they want those changes to be made in a more thoughtful, coordinated, and sustained way than they have seen so far. They are also concerned about how the other major powers in the region, especially China, will respond to a more assertive approach from Washington. Just as Asians do not want to be drawn into American domestic debates, they do not wish to be entangled in a confrontational relationship between the United States and China. As always, Asians prefer the “Goldilocks” option: a U.S.-China relationship that is “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.”

Finally, while expressing concern about many aspects of the Trump administration’s Asia policy, the participants in this conference could not always reach agreement on what they wanted that policy to be. There were different views about the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, about the desired outcomes of the U.S.-DPRK summit, and about optimal regional trade arrangements. Americans need to listen carefully to their Asian partners and friends, but they cannot expect them to speak with a unified voice.

Harry Harding is university professor and professor of public policy at the University of Virginia and visiting professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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