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Asia in the Age of Trump

Original Broadcast Date:
January 14, 2017(UTC)

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised to give US interests top priority and put “America First.” He also said the country’s relationships with long-standing allies would be subject to review.

Recently, in Asia, the North Korean nuclear threat and China’s maritime advancement are among the many points of potential conflict. In response, the US has been strengthening economic and security ties in the region.

What policies should the next US president adopt toward Asia? These were some of the issues discussed on this edition of Global Agenda by experts on Asian diplomacy.

The panelists were: Christopher Hill, Wendy Cutler, Brian Harding and Toshihiro Nakayama. The moderator was David Sanger who had the opportunities to interview Mr. Trump at length during the campaign.

Things kicked off with a discussion of how Trump is questioning the very basis of the liberal international order, under which US leadership around the world is generally considered a good thing. Hill asked, “Can you take alliances and turn them into a kind of transactional relationship—that is, you do this and we’ll do that?” Nakayama followed up with the observation that Trump has challenged the notion that the US-Japan alliance is about shared values, and has instead framed it as bond based on security, where the US is doing more to protect Japan than Japan itself is.

The panelists seemed to agree that while Trump was a flexible dealmaker, he had remained pretty consistent regarding his stance on international trade, and about wanting to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US.

This was a nice transition into a discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Washington signed on to this deal, which aims to create a free-trade zone in the Asia- Pacific region. But Trump says the deal is a very bad for American manufacturing workers, and he’s vowed to make withdrawing from the TPP one of his first actions as president, which many think would kill the pact.

Cutler challenged the notion that TPP would be dead without the US, but the other panelists seemed less optimistic, and Nakayama pointed out that, if the US does withdraw from the TPP, it would symbolize a more general American withdrawal from Asia, and an abandonment of the “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region touted by Barack Obama.
This pivot, which was later rebranded as a “rebalancing,” meant that Asia—with its growing economies—became a key diplomatic focus. But Donald Trump has called for a reduced US presence on the world stage, and a less aggressive stance when it comes to addressing potential global conflict.

Harding noted that he is “not seeing a lot of Asia expertise at the top of the list of incoming Trump officials,” but that many Republican members of Congress are behind the defense aspect of the pivot. The panelists then talked about the important issue of how relationships between countries active in the South China Sea are going to evolve.

The discussion shifted to North Korea. Kim Jong Un has made clear his intention to press ahead with his nuclear development program. In response, Hill said, the Trump administration will likely “move militarily to strengthen missile defense in North East Asia.” Sanger mentioned that if long-range North Korean nuclear missiles are ready to launch, there would be a case for pre-emptive strike by the US. Nakayama responded that if it is a preventive strike, it would be difficult for Japan to go along with the US because it would destabilize North East Asia.

The final topic was what advice the panelists would give to President-Elect Trump before he takes office. Nakayama said that Trump should bear in mind that “Japan is a good partner,” while Harding said that Trump needs to “bring it back to basics”: that non-proliferation is important, that climate change is real, and that the liberal international order has been a good thing for the US and the Asia-Pacific region for many years.


Christopher Hill

Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (2005-2009)

Wendy Cutler

Vice President, Asia Society Policy Institute
Former Acting Deputy US Trade Representative

Brian Harding

Director for East and Southeast Asia, Center for American Progress
Country Director for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, US Department of Defense (2009-2013)

Toshihiro Nakayama

Professor, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University


David Sanger

National Security Correspondent, The New York Times
Former Tokyo Bureau Chief, The New York Times