This article was published by the Asia Center.
With Donald Trump’s surprising victory in becoming the next President of the United States next month, people are anxious to have some idea about his likely Asia policy. A panel of four experts was convened on December 5 by the Acting Director of the Harvard Asia Center, Professor Andrew Gordon, and moderated by Professor Susan Pharr of Harvard University, to interpret any related harbingers thus far.
To unscramble Trump’s inscrutability, Professor Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School began by taking Trump’s words from his campaign trail. Although contradictory at times, Trump’s statements on American foreign policy, if taken literally, would represent a radical departure from the post-World War II liberal international order that successive American presidents had shaped through a network of security alliances and international institutions. To maintain this order, the U.S. has intervened militarily in far-flung places when necessary. Trump threatened to withdraw American troops from the military bases of allied countries if American allies don’t contribute more to the alliances. Judging from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s deft visit of Trump soon after Trump’s presidential victory and the fact that Japan already contributes more to the alliance than other American allies, Nye predicted that the U.S.-Japan alliance would “probably be OK.”
On China, Nye foresaw Trump’s threat of imposing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports to the U.S. and of declaring China as a currency manipulator to be either too expensive or too impractical to carry out after Trump begins to govern the country. In absence of other indications from Trump on his China policy, Nye invoked his government experience in the Clinton administration when he designed and promulgated a two-legged approach to China: integrate China into the international system by allowing China a bigger voice and encouraging China to become “a responsible stake holder,” while strengthening U.S. relations with its conventional allies in the Asia Pacific region, of which the U.S. -Japan alliance is a cornerstone. Over the past two decades or so, China has proven to be a revisionist power, making only minor adjustments to the international system, not a revolutionary power which aims to do away with the whole system. As a sign of the success of this approach, three out of the four challenges in Sino-U.S. relations as of just a few years ago, with the exception of the South China Sea, have disappeared: China is no longer a currency manipulator; President Xi Jinping signed an agreement with President Obama in 2015 to forbid cyber espionage for commercial advantages, which was later multilateralized to G20; and China cooperated with the U.S. to form a common position in the UN climate change conference in Paris in 2015.
Professor Ezra Vogel of Harvard University started with what we knew at this point about Trump and postulated three possible scenarios for a medium-term future. By now, we have some idea about what kind of person Trump is and some of his appointments in high government positions. Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is emblematic of his tendency of not consulting professionals before engaging with foreign leaders. Vogel credited Beijing for responding to this phone call in a calm and sensible manner, but worried about the potential of this event becoming a trigger for escalating tensions between Beijing, Washington and Taiwan. He called for increasing preparedness for any small-chance event to happen and become dominant news, whether it’s a terrorist attack or a collision in the disputed areas of the South and East China Sea or a financial collapse in one or more countries.
It is clear that the most powerful forces in the Pacific region are China and the U.S. Other countries have become accustomed to looking to China for economic and trade relations and to the U.S. for security relations. The Sino-U.S. relationship can be far-reaching in the short-to-intermediate term. One scenario with a good chance to happen is muddling through, in which Trump’s senseless campaign promises cannot be implemented either because he learns on the job and adapts to new information or because his subordinates, including bureaucrats, thwart execution due to disagreement; and other countries do not over-react to his offhand utterances. A second scenario is that China gains global stature for playing a positive role and the U.S. loses stature. China could operate the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS bank and the One Belt One Road project in transparent ways up to international standards; and other peripheral countries respond positively to China’s advances. A third scenario is that China moves aggressively militarily on many contentious issues, such as its cross-strait relations with Taiwan, the South and East China Sea disputes, and the Dalai Lama’s activities among others. Any of these could provoke a strong response by the United States or other countries and lead to conflicts. This is particularly worrisome given that Trump has not shown any inclination to seek professional advice.
Noting that Trump’s Asia policy is not set in stone, Dr. Lynn Kuok of Harvard Law School and Brookings Institution argued that it is a good time to be making a case for U.S. interests and priorities in the region. She underlined the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the U.S. The ten member states collectively comprise the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. More than 65 percent of its 625 million people are below the age of 35. ASEAN stands at the heart of any viable security architecture in the region, and engagement with the association increases Washington’s flexibility and influence in the region and also takes the edge off direct Sino-U.S. competition.
Kuok highlighted three principal areas of concerns for Southeast Asia. First among concerns is U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This empowers China with regional newspapers reporting on the new life being breathed into the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade deal China spearheaded in 2011 with considerably lower standards. The second concern is reduced attention to ASEAN and its member states. As a rising and more assertive China heightens anxieties in Southeast Asia, countries are thinking about how best to position themselves. Neglecting the region will hurt the United States’ position and standing. Third among concerns is a weak or ineffectual defense of interests and principles, particularly in the South China Sea. Kuok pointed out how Trump has appeared to distance the United States from the South China Sea dispute saying that is “very far away” (from the U.S.). But Kuok pointed out that the U.S. has an interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes, in upholding the rule of law, and in ensuring freedom of navigation. She argued that the extent of control that China exerts can be limited through regular assertions of maritime rights vested under international law. Kuok warned that any of the above concerns coming to pass will feed into Beijing’s narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner which comes and goes as it pleases.
Professor Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of the Tufts University framed his remarks on the latest political drama in South Korea and the U.S.-Korea relations into the mundane, the arcane, the inane and the profane. The pending impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye under the undue influence of her long-term friend Choi Soon-sil for extortion and abuse of power is only the latest in a series of corruption scandals prior to her administration, which brought down governments. Park’s lack of plausible deniability of involvement will usher in a new government in a few months. In an abstract sense, there is nothing new to the Korean public. Lee traced the U.S. abandonment of Korea in 1905 and 1949, and the question of the U.S. withdrawal of 20,000 troops from South Korea under President Nixon in 1969–which became fait accompli by 1971–as triggering change in the status quo in Korea. South Korea then wanted to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. This intention was dissuaded later by the U.S. But if Trump really withdraws from the U.S.-Korean alliance, South Korea will have no choice but to develop its own nuclear programs to fend off the North.
Although Trump is quite ignorant about foreign policy issues, he may not surround himself with military hardliners. President George W. Bush, under his overarching objective of fighting terrorism, basically made concessions with North Korea in 2006 despite so many violations by the North of the agreed codes. President Obama didn’t do much better in the last eight years after Bush. As a result, North Korea has continued its nuclear development and missile tests. By “profane,” Lee did not mean Trump’s derogatory remarks about women, but North Korea’s systematic and unparalleled violation of human rights. The North is guilty of deliberate mass starvation, according to Lee. He was cynical about the effectiveness of international sanctions through United Nations on the North due to serious lack of political will and commitment to enforce them. The recent three-party agreement by the U.S., Japan and South Korea to sanction the North has the potential to become potent, but whether Trump has the patience and determination to see it through remains to be seen.
This special event was held December 5, 2016, and sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Reischauer Institute, Kim Koo Forum at the Korea Institute, the South Asia Institute, East Asian Legal Studies, Harvard Law School, Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School. It is the first in a series of Harvard University public talks on U.S.-Asia relations during Trump’s presidency. Listen to the recording of the talk.