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Trump’s Asia Team is a Hawkish Work in Progress

Ashley Townshend
Commentary, 9 February 2017
China, United States, US Defence Policy, Americas, Pacific
US President Donald Trump has hinted at a more muscular US foreign policy in Asia–Pacific. In tweets and speeches since the election, he has adopted a hard-line on North Korea and his Asia team is shaping up to reflect Trump’s hawkish stance towards China on trade and security. But it is also likely to be an eclectic group.

Reflecting President Donald Trump’s prioritisation of economic issues over security policy in Asia, trade nominees have led the way on Asia appointments. Vocal protectionist and China critic Robert Lighthizer will become the US Trade Representative (USTR), and is poised to advance Trump’s ‘America first’ trade policy in the Asia­–Pacific.

As a deputy USTR in the Ronald Regan administration, Lighthizer imposed tough trade restrictions on countries, such as Japan, for dumping in US markets; and has since represented American firms in their effort to minimise foreign competition.

Lighthizer’s condemnation of Republicans in 2008 for ‘embrac[ing] unbridled free trade … no matter how many jobs are lost, [or] how high the trade deficit rises’ aligns with Trump’s agenda to bring back jobs by ending bad deals.

Like Trump, Lighthizer sees ‘Chinese mercantilism’ and the relocation of US firms to China as the main driver of America’s trade imbalance. He advocates ‘aggressive trade measures’ to combat the deficit, including tariffs and a possible abrogation of US commitments under the World Trade Organization.

An even more outspoken China hawk, Peter Navarro, will serve as Director of the National Trade Council. Arguably Trump’s closest China adviser during the election campaign, the Harvard-trained economist attacks the dangers of free-trade with China, describing it as a ‘zero-sum game’ that erodes ‘prosperity in the global economy’.

Navarro blames China’s unfair trade practices – such as currency manipulation, poor work standards, environmental damage and intellectual property theft – for the loss of American manufacturing jobs and the trade imbalance. His solution, like Trump’s, is a 45% tariff on Chinese imports.

Navarro has also called for tougher US push-back on ‘China’s militarism’, advocating a 350-ship navy, strong regional alliances, and support for Taiwan on democratic and strategic grounds. He has written extensively on the subject, including a book entitled Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World.

On security policy, the only sure candidate is Matt Pottinger, who will be the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Asia. The former Marine is an unusual choice. The last five Senior Directors for Asia were career specialists in East Asian security who had held multiple positions in the national security bureaucracy prior to appointment, including at the NSC, Departments of State and Defense, and US embassies in the region.

Pottinger on the other hand has never held a government position and has no background on Asia security policy. However, he might bring unconventional qualifications. Trained as a Mandarin linguist, he spent seven years as a journalist in China – an experience that has given him an insider’s perspective on the country.

Likewise, after joining the Marines, Pottinger gained valuable operational experience in military intelligence; and demonstrated his ability to design sweeping changes to institutionalised operating procedures. These skills could make him an effective change-maker on Asia policy coordination.

Pottinger’s writing suggests he will adopt a values-based stance towards Beijing.

In 2005, Pottinger explained that living in China had taught him ‘what a non-democratic country can do to its citizens’, recalling the surveillance and state violence that he and others endured. This led him to appreciate ‘the institutions that distinguish the US’, such as ‘the separation of powers, a free press, and the right to vote’.

Pottinger was scathing of China in 2007 when he criticised Beijing’s ‘little respect for the truth’ and imposed ‘self-censorship’ of the media. These sentiments will chime with the hawkish line on China held by others in Trump’s Asia team.

As Trump’s Secretaries of State and Defense are not Asia experts, their Assistant Secretaries are likely to be influential.

Former George W Bush administration official Randall Schriver is a frontrunner for the Defense position. He views Beijing as a strategic competitor, and is suspicious of its military modernisation, revisionist aims and ‘backsliding’ on democracy and human rights.

Schriver is likely to push for an enhanced military rebalance to Asia, seeking a more muscular US presence and asking allies to contribute more to collective defence. As a leading advocate of US–Taiwan defence relations, Schriver would support Trump’s engagement of Taipei provided it is not simply a bargaining chip with China.

Asian nations should prepare for a Trump administration that will be tough on Beijing on trade and security policy. This is the greatest point of convergence within Trump’s Asia team and with his national security cabinet.

Trump's, Lighthizer's, and Navarro’s preferences for a tariff on Chinese imports is likely to translate into early action. Tariffs will spark retaliatory measures by China, risking a trade war and raising production costs across the region.

Were Trump to ask US allies to support a tariff regime, countries such as Australia, Japan and South Korea would face a difficult choice between saying no to the administration on one of its core priorities, or damaging their interests in free trade and stable relations with China.

On security, Trump’s Asia team and cabinet are likely to support a stronger US military presence in the Asia–Pacific, potentially raising demands on allies to host visiting forces, deepen interoperability or participate in actions such as freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

By adopting tough policies against China on most major bilateral issues, Trump will create more, not less, volatility in US–China ties.

This conflicts with Asian nations’ interests in a constructive major power relationship between the US and China, and may be destabilising for the entire region.

For US allies worried about being asked to support policies that do not align with their priorities or domestic sensitivities, it will be important to pre-emptively clarify positions on issues such as Taiwan, Chinese trade practices and US basing.

Such countries should cooperate to ensure, where possible, that they are aligned on issues of disagreement with America.

All nations will have to adjust to uncertainty in Washington’s Asia policy due to possible tensions inside Trump’s team and with the rest of his cabinet.

Three issues could stir discord within the administration. First, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to China Terry Branstad may clash with Lighthizer, Navarro and Trump, though the protectionists are more influential at this stage.

Second, it is possible moderate voices on US–China relations, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, will overrule the more provocative inclinations of the pro-Taiwan camp.

Finally, there is a split on the issue of democratic values in foreign policy – with Navarro, Pottinger, Schriver and Mattis broadly in favour of defending ideals abroad, as opposed to Trump and Tillerson who are less comfortable with this approach.

Ashley Townshend is a Research Fellow at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, Australia. This post is an abbreviated and slightly modified version of a broader report published by the Centre, which can be found here

Banner image: Donald Trump wants to 'make American great again' by imposing huge trade tariffs. His Asia–Pacific team are of the same mind. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia.

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