Heidi M. Pascual*
Publisher & Editor
* 2006 Journalist of the Year for the State
of Wisconsin (U.S.-SBA)
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|On Trump's Early Asia-Pacific Engagement
By Heidi M. Pascual
There are lots of negatives that we hear and read about President Trump in almost every move he makes, but I am
particularly interested in what he has done so far in dealing with the Asia-Pacific region during his fist 100 days in office. I am
thankful I got to read the issue brief by Michael Fuchs, Brian Harding, and Melanie Hart in the Center for American Progress
which discusses in detail Trump’s actions on the matter and the grades they assigned on the same. The grading system
used was: PASS- a job well done; SATISFACTORY- acceptable, but real concerns exist; and FAIL- they must stop what they
do. The authors assessed personal engagement, regional security, economic engagement, alliances, Southeast Asia,
China, India, and climate.
Firstly, I agree that Trump is actually continuing President Obama’s policy of an intense high-level diplomatic engagement
with the region. However, some policy moves and tactless comments by the Trump administration also cancel out any
positive engagement, resulting in an overall GPA of Satisfactory/Fail. Below is an abbreviated and updated result and my
take on some of them:
Personal engagement: Pass
So far the Trump administration has taken the time to prioritize the Asia-Pacific. Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister
Shinzō Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping for summits at Mar-a-Lago; Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have all made trips to the region; and Secretary Tillerson hosted the 10
foreign ministers of the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in early May in
Washington. The impulse to engage early and often is essential to a successful regional strategy over the long run.
My take: I have yet to see and understand Trump’s foreign policy on the region, especially in the areas of regional security,
and economic and military partnerships.
Regional security: Fail
The Trump administration has talked about getting tough on the two main security challenges facing the United States in
Asia—North Korea and the South China Sea—but has nothing to show for its bluster after 100 days. In recent weeks,
President Trump and his team have escalated the rhetoric about North Korea—even implicitly threatening unilateral U.S.
military strikes. But with little apparent strategy backing it up, playing chicken with a nuclear-armed state is a recipe for
My take: I have yet to see and understand what Trump’s moves would be on North Korea’s aggressive actions. I truly want to
know what Trump’s response is on South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea), as China continues to build a military post on
the islands despite the International Arbitration Court’s favorable ruling for the Philippines.
Economic engagement: Fail
One of President Trump’s main campaign themes was trade. Then-candidate Trump insisted that the United States was
negotiating terrible trade deals and that China was “raping” the United States economically. Trump’s voters were rightly
frustrated that globalization and insufficient economic recovery had left them a raw deal, and they demanded major changes
to the way the United States handled trade relations with Asia. But Trump has failed to deliver on all fronts.
My take: Trump’s actions, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade deal in Asia, simply
showed his misguided protectionist color. Who is he protecting, anyway? I have yet to see American workers being
“protected” at home.
Despite President Trump’s brash statements during the campaign challenging the basic wisdom of alliances, the Trump
administration appears to have come around to the importance of maintaining strong ties with Tokyo and Seoul. With Japan,
gone are calls for the United States to be paid to defend it in some sort of protection racket, and talk of the U.S. trade deficit
has been notably mute. In their place, Trump has declared that he is “100 percent with Japan” and has ushered in one of the
most intense periods of U.S.-Japan high-level diplomacy in history. And despite the fact that South Korea currently does not
have an elected president in place, Mattis, Tillerson, and Pence also each visited Seoul.
Southeast Asia: Satisfactory
In Southeast Asia, the Trump administration has sent strong signals about the importance of the region as a whole,
including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an organization. In a first for a secretary of state, soon after
assuming his position, Tillerson hosted the 10 ASEAN ambassadors for a meeting at State Department headquarters and
has invited the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers to Washington for a meeting in early May. Vice President Pence followed suit,
visiting Jakarta, Indonesia, on his trip to Asia and including a stop at the ASEAN Secretariat, and he announced that
President Trump would travel to the Philippines and Vietnam in the fall for the East Asia Summit, the U.S.-ASEAN summit,
and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
My take: What would Trump talk about security and economic engagements or partnerships? He has withdrawn from the
TPP; he hates our Muslim brothers; he doesn’t seem to have a vision for South China Sea’s military posturing; what?
The White House needs to address problematic Chinese behavior, ranging from trade and investment relations to the
situation with North Korea and China’s new restrictions on U.S. think tanks and other nongovernmental organizations.
Instead of focusing on these high-priority issues, President Trump squandered substantial political capital by challenging
the One China policy, which has been a pillar of U.S. policy toward China since the Nixon administration.
First, when Secretary Tillerson visited Beijing in March, he parroted one of President Xi’s favorite talking points, describing
the U.S.-China relationship as a “very positive relationship built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always
searching for win-win solutions.” President Xi first made that statement at a time when China was ramping up its military
activity in the South China Sea, and many American experts on China view the statement as a call for the United States to sit
back and let China do what it wants, regardless of how China’s actions affect U.S. interests. Second, in April, shortly after the
first Trump-Xi presidential summit, Trump stated that he was willing to give trade concessions to China in exchange for
positive Chinese action on North Korea. This suggests that he is willing to trade one core U.S. interest for another instead of
pressing Beijing to make concessions on both fronts.
My take: Amen to all of the above.
Despite being the world’s second-largest country and a top 10 global economy, President Trump has not appeared to focus
much on India in his first 100 days. The highlight so far was a trip by national security adviser H.R. McMaster to India as part
of a trip to South Asia, where McMaster appeared to sound all the right notes about the importance of the U.S.-India
My take: There are also Indian Americans who are Muslims. Trump is anti-Muslim, go figure the dynamics.
On climate change, the Trump administration has already ceded global leadership to the Chinese. Regardless of how the
administration frames its approach to the Paris Agreement, the fact that the Trump administration is ignoring scientific facts
and rolling back Obama administration clean energy and climate policies makes it nearly impossible for the United States to
play a leadership role on this issue.
In concluding the issue brief, the authors wrote that Trump’s approaches to North Korea, China, regional economics, and
beyond are damaging U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. The Trump administration quickly needs to realize that
showing up is not a substitute for effective policies. It must begin crafting effective strategies for the key challenges and
opportunities in the region.
My take: There is still time to recover from all these stumbles. Trump must realize that the challenges facing the Asia-Pacific
region are also the same challenges facing the United States today and tomorrow. In order to maintain U.S. strength in the
region, it must refrain from being a paper tiger or a fighter carrying a white flag in the face of a new giant in the region.