Student Perspective | The Uncertainty of U.S.-Asia Relations Under President Trump

Written by: Varsha Appaji ’21, president of the Tower Center Student Forum and Tower Center Undergraduate Fellow

Uncertainty is the only thing that many citizens have come to be sure of under President Trump’s rule. As this sentiment pervades our country, it also reaches abroad, shaking up the foundation of various international relations that have been carefully laid by decades of precedent. This state of uncertainty is particularly evident in Asia, largely due to President Trump’s perhaps “contradictory” relationships with a nuclear North Korea, a hegemonic China, a friendly Japan, and more. In February, Dr. LaiYee Leong, Dr. Hiroki Takeuchi, and Professor Diana Newton sat down to lead a panel discussion for the Tower Center Student Forum, aimed to address the puzzling question—what exactly is the state of foreign relations with Asia under Trump?

Dr. Takeuchi started off the discussion by addressing the dominating issue of U.S.-Chinese relations: trade. Currently, the U.S. holds a trade-deficit with China, a result of major toy and technology imports. But the U.S. is still a substantial exporter; we supply China with soybeans, commercial aircrafts, and automobiles, to name the top three. As commonly heard on the news, this trading relationship is characterized by a game of tariff tag. Dr. Takeuchi explains that this series of tariffs can be boiled down to two key demands made by the U.S.: (1) the protection of American intellectual property rights and (2) an end to the forced technology transfer by the Chinese. Dr. Takeuchi notes that these demands are rooted in issues with China’s domestic politics. Two political groups make up China today. The Reformists vie for a “peaceful and cooperative” international system, as well as for economic reforms geared toward widespread growth (particularly for state-owned enterprises or SOEs). Problematically, SOE reform is difficult because of the vested interests held by powerful citizens, namely from the Conservative party. These internal divisions present significant barriers to the possible alleviation of the U.S.’s demands. Thus, external measures, most critically the TPP, functioned as a means of SOE reform. Unfortunately, with Trump’s immediate action to nullify the TPP, the U.S.’s demands remain in place, but with no potential solving mechanism. This places the U.S. in a sort of limbo with China, perpetuating the cycle of tariffs and retaliation that characterizes the ongoing “trade-war.” Outside of the economic uncertainty that this trade-war creates, the broader implications are visible in the sentiments held by other countries in Asia.

Professor Newton shifted gears slightly to discuss Japan, and the Koreas. She notes that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has comparatively taken substantial and effective steps to best try and manage U.S.-Asia relations. While Abe is pushing for the U.S. to reenter the TPP, Trump is pursuing a purely bilateral relationship with Japan. But because Japan faces an aggressive China and a nuclear North Korea, Abe does not seem to have too much leverage in strategically transforming this relationship, due to Japan’s heavy reliance on the U.S. for its military capabilities. On the other hand, South Korea does not have a particularly good relationship with the U.S. or Japan. This is largely due to Trump’s North Korean foreign policy. Professor Newton explains that whereas the Obama administration used cyber-warfare to deal with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the Trump administration is open to more threatening actions, even ground war. Essentially, South Korea’s desire is for peace and prosperity (entailing economic cooperation with North Korea), but the U.S.’s current focus is only on denuclearization. South Korea’s disagreements with the U.S. spillover to their increasing tensions with Japan—an illustration of how the Trump administration’s relations with Asia has furthered thinned the regional ice.

Dr. Leong opened up her discussion of southeast Asia by talking about the ASEAN members, who collectively make up the 2nd fastest growing economy (after China) and host around 30% of all global trade. For these “middle-power” nations, security is the major concern, for various historical as well as present reasons. Under President Obama, there was the “pivot Asia” movement, which demonstrated a strong U.S. commitment and sense of international comfort to the ASEAN countries. As Dr. Leong coined, “the U.S. was a benign hegemon to ASEAN.” But with Trump’s America first attitude, ASEAN’s sense of stability is threatened. Instead of pursuing multilateralism, Trump’s strategy has been bilateral in southeast Asia as well, and inherently, this weakens the fabric of the ASEAN states’ bond. Leong explains that a dual-hierarchical order exists in southeast Asia: for security, the region relies on the U.S., and for economic needs, they rely on China. She then draws upon an African proverb: “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In this case, the U.S.-Chinese heightening tensions place southeast Asia in a contentious state. In turn this has contributed to the rise of nationalism throughout Asia (along with the general global trend). Under Trump, there has been a slight attempt at renewed focus on southeast Asia in the form of FIOP, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. But with strong Chinese opposition (in efforts to protect its regional hegemony), no significant measures have been taken thus far to reaffirm U.S.-southeast Asian relations.

The clarity that I was able to receive from this discussion is that there is no clear path forward for the U.S.’s relationship with Asia. However, by understanding the dynamics of the region and how the U.S. under Trump plays a role, it can become clearer why this uncertainty exists, and how it can be potentially alleviated. As always, our goal at the Tower Center Student Forum is to broaden our perspectives and sharpen our understandings when it comes to issues in the policy realm. This discussion was an excellent platform to deconstruct and illuminate the roots of an intricate and critical topic area, one that has broad social, political, and economic implications. On behalf of the TCSF, we sincerely thank Dr. Takeuchi, Dr. Leong, and Professor Newton for sharing their knowledge and expertise with us.