President Trump makes his own “pivot to Asia” next week when he undertakes the longest overseas trip of his presidency. But it bears only slight resemblance to his predecessor’s much-vaunted foreign policy rebalance. For Trump, the pivot is less strategic and more personal, a chance to introduce himself to a region still troubled by one of his first official actions in office.
When he visits Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, the president will face the fallout from his move on Jan. 23, his first full day at work in the Oval Office, to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The 12-nation trade deal was championed by President Obama to knit together countries representing nearly 40 percent of the global economy. Obama saw the TPP as a bulwark against China’s regional dominance, arguing that the U.S., “not countries like China,” should write the rules governing trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
Trump saw the TPP as a “potential disaster” and dumped it, promising to get better deals for the U.S. by negotiating individually with other countries, in the process eliminating American trade deficits. When he makes his maiden visit to the region, though, he will find China moving quickly into the post-TPP vacuum and little appetite by other countries for this one-by-one approach.
“The decision to withdraw from TPP was an unforced error,” said Matthew Goodman, who was director for Asian economic affairs in George W. Bush’s National Security Council and Obama’s coordinator for Asian summits. It left the region “questioning our credibility and our commitment,” he said, adding, “That’s why I emphasize that the region is looking for something from President Trump to fill that vacuum.” If he fails to do that on this trip, Goodman said, China will step in.
Recognition of China’s threat helped propel Obama to reorient American policy toward the Asia-Pacific in his final six years as president. When he left office, Obama was confident that the pivot would endure. The failure of the TPP, which Ben Rhodes of the Obama NSC called “the connective tissue and the glue” to American regional leadership, undermines that case. The pivot was always ground in three American commitments—to guarantee the security of allies in the region, to become more deeply involved in Southeast Asia, and to provide economic leadership.
On security, there has been little change from Obama to Trump, despite initial qualms about statements Trump made in the campaign suggesting that regional powers should take responsibility for their own defense. On Southeast Asia, the record of the new president is mixed. Through meetings and phone calls, he has tried to build personal relationships with many leaders, but he may undercut these efforts by returning home on Nov. 13 instead of staying one more day in the Philippines to attend the East Asia Summit. That decision played into concerns the other leaders already had about Trump’s rejection of the TPP and the Paris climate accord.
“One of the things that has really jarred Southeast Asians in particular is the rejection of multilateralism,” said Amy Searight, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. “There aren’t many regions in the world that are more committed to multilateralism and using multilateral frameworks to engage each other and powerful neighbors.”
That also ties in to the third pillar of the pivot—the promise of economic leadership, which has been badly shaken by the TPP decision. The decision “was a godsend to China,” said Mireya Solis, codirector of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. “It basically allowed China to portray itself as the champion of multilateralism.”
Trump’s economic vision, as understood by much of Asia, is baldly transactional. It is “an America-first approach to trade relations” that puts a priority on reducing bilateral trade deficits, said Michael J. Green, who was senior director for Asia in George W. Bush’s NSC. “It’s a somewhat zero-sum view of economic relations with countries in the region and not really a view of setting rules and expanding the integration of countries into an open and free trading system… And that has friends and allies in the region a bit perplexed.”
A senior Trump administration official insisted that a focus of the upcoming trip will be an embrace of “an international trading system which is rules-based and respects high standards” along with “the removal of unfair trade barriers”—all of which were at the heart of the TPP. But the still-young administration has yet to propose an alternate way to accomplish what it rejected in the TPP.
No one doubts that the headlines of this trip almost certainly will be dominated by discussions of the North Korea nuclear program and the rising threat of war on the Korean peninsula. But Trump cannot escape the urgency of reassuring the leaders in his meetings that he is not ceding regional economic leadership to China and showing them that America is firmly committed to Asia, both militarily and economically.
It is why the stakes are so high for his planned speech in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he is expected to outline his policy priorities for the region. If Obama’s pivot was merely a six-year experiment, this trip—and that speech—is Trump’s opportunity to explain what comes next.