President Elect Trump’s Foreign Policy: Will He Pivot Back to Asia?

By Morgan Deane:

As you might have heard, there was an election recently, Donald Trump overcame long odds given by the prognosticators and he won. His election brought a great deal of concern and questioning about his more controversial statements towards women and minorities. But foreign policy challenges and potential dangers remain. It is vitally important to look at the statements and actions by Trump to determine its potential impact on Asian challenges.

Asian Pivot

The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently suggested their country might move away from America. The comment was lost in the intensity leading up to the election, and he later walked back the idea, but America has not built the strength in the region that they have promised. Largely this is due to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, and a mass refugee crisis radiating from Syria.  But it also seems to suggest that America isn’t serious in the region. This is extremely concerning to our allies, as they incur China’s wrath for adopting policies that are independent of China, and yet America is sending a signal that they might not receive American support when they need it.

The Philippines, for example, recently won a World Court ruling against China that rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. The tribunal also said that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration. While America applauds the decision, it is the Filipino merchant marine that is harassed, having their ships seized by the Chinese coast guard stationed around their illegally constructed islands.

Trump hasn’t yet indicated if he will make the same commitment regarding an East Asian pivot, though analysts think he will. During a recent speech he said he wanted to make positive changes to American foreign policy.  One of his advisors wrote about how countries in South East Asia such as Myanmar and Vietnam, as well as traditional allies like India and Japan, still seek close relations with the US.

Analysts also suggest that the larger navy Trump promised will be able to perform vital Freedom of the Seas Operations which promotes both international law as well as joint training exercises. On top of this, the problems that have distracted America and drawn her forces away have a chance of ebbing in the future. ISIS continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, and the Russian military is facing steep budget cuts that should curtail their adventurism. These factors suggest Trump will indeed pivot to Asia and send more forces to the region to reassure American allies.


Some of these allies need reassurance because of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  Trump repeatedly questioned how much our allies pay and suggest they don’t pay their fair share for the stationed military forces. That is extremely annoying to some of America’s Pacific allies, as Tokyo pays around 1.7 billion per year for American bases in Japan and has promised 3.1 billion to move American bases to Guam.  South Korea has paid over 800 million to support American troops in their country. On top of this, Trump and Clinton both blasted the Trans Pacific Partnership that is vital for US business in the region. This is a treaty that many of our allies wanted, and which we spent a great deal of time negotiating.  Strengthened trade ties will help promote peace and prosperity in the region and it’s an additional tool to counter massive Chinese influence. These issues suggest that Trump’s policies might not strengthen alliances and that his words have already frayed them.

America and China

For both America and China, the set of issues, from economics to security, remains the same. It’s possible that neither side will want to rock the boat and relations will hold steady.  It’s rumored that Trump will tap Randy Forbes as Secretary of the Navy. This is very important as he has long worked on strengthening the navy in order to counter multiple threats, and understands the potential problems from China’s A2AD policy and their aggression in the South China Sea. If China does choose to rock the boat America will be more ready to respond with a Randy Forbes navy.

Assessing Trump is more difficult in this area because he often presented contradicting messages during the campaign.  America’s potential to rock the boat depends on which Trump shows up. The tough guy Trump might slap tariffs on China and more sanctions on North Korea while making the navy aggressively patrol the South China Sea. This would naturally lead to vigorous Chinese responses such as a trade war. They’ve already said that cars, the IPhone, soybeans, and maize would be affected in such a trade war.

A trade at least, is still better than an actual war, which is what has a greater chance if Trump puts the navy on an aggressive posture.  China is building up islands and claiming disputed territory in the South China Sea.  Other powers use this strategy as well, but not to the degree that China does. Nor do they militarize them with increasingly advanced weapons systems. America should perform Freedom of Seas operations through the disputed territories. This reinforces international law and prevents China from bullying its neighbors.  But that is far different than taking aggressive and bellicose action throughout the region, which if Trumps twitter feed is any indication, is how he likes to respond to those that challenge him.

The second Trump that could show up would follow the Art of the Deal. He could come up with a negotiation that meets most of our mutual needs.  This might include something like less American military influence in the region in exchange for China changing its economic practices and currency manipulation. This would avoid most of the negative consequences above, but it might cause our allies in the region to count on us less and tilt more towards China.

Whatever the course of a Trump administration, it’s important to keep in mind that we still don’t know a great deal about how Trump will govern. This makes it doubly important to carefully look at his appointments and verbiage as to what this might suggest about his foreign policy. The election is over but the real work of trying to craft a foreign policy that protects American interests and supports our allies is still ahead for us.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.


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