Semtext #5: Brian Harding – Trump’s Asia Policy

This SemText is a recap of Brian Harding’s talk on Trump’s Asia policy, in which he attempts to generally explain what Trump has in store for Asia.

I just realized I haven’t updated this column for almost two years. Hopefully, that will change as I’ve tried to make a commitment to join at least one seminar every month. Anyway, as a re-opening of this column, these are some notes from Brian Harding’s talk on Trump’s Asia policy.

In this seminar organized by the Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia, Harding, a Fellow of the Southeast Asia program at the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, tries to explain what Trump’s foreign policy in Asia is like.

Note: Those are two different institutions that just happen to share the same name. The only difference is that one uses British spelling and the other American.

Trump, the anomaly

Trump’s rise to the presidency was an “anomaly” in terms of US politics. Harding pointed out that other candidates (including his fellow Republicans), prior to running, typically put together “policy teams” consisting of foreign policy experts and the sort from think-tanks and other institutions. Trump, however, did not follow along this path; instead opting to construct his foreign policy establishment after getting elected.

Since I don’t avidly follow US domestic politics, I’ll link a video by John Oliver who does a decent job explaining Trump’s personality (and general approach to foreign policy).

How can we think about Trumpian foreign policy?

Prior to starting this part, Harding notes that Trump’s foreign policy is hard to decipher because there’s often a disconnect between what he says and his actions.

After noting this, Harding puts forward three aspects that generally characterizes Trump’s foreign policy. These include foreign policy as (1) a reflection of his personal beliefs and convictions, (2) hawkish and conservative, and (3) is currently faced with crises.

Trump’s personal beliefs and convictions are perhaps the most obvious indicators of how Trump constructs foreign policy. These beliefs affect the issues that Trump focuses on and how he approaches them. If one tracks Trump’s political views for the last couple of decades, you’ll find that while Trump has been ambiguous about many issues, trade is the only issue in which he is consistent upon. Hence, issues of trade, like the US trade deficit, will rank higher in his list of priorities, and influence his formulation of policy. In terms of alliances, Trump thinks NATO members are ripping the US off… which explains his behavior towards Germany and other key NATO members. Trump also tends to favor bilateral deals—which is thought to come from his experiences as a real estate mogul—and despise multilateral deals. This isn’t exactly unique to Trump; it is a generally held view among Republicans. The last example is Trump’s tendency to hate everything that Obama made, which includes the Iran Deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Paris Agreement.

Trump’s personality also acts as a barrier towards “rational” policymaking. He tends to not listen to advisors, and advisors also have a hard time telling Trump why the last 70 years of world order have been beneficial to the US. If you’ve watched the John Oliver clip above till the end, you’ll get what Harding is trying to say.

As for the second aspect, Trump tends to “frame” foreign relations as being a competition, particularly when it comes to China. Harding points towards the recent National Security Strategy to illustrate this point. The 2018 edition is still classified, so all I had to work with is an unclassified summary [PDF] published by the Department of Defense. Here are some interesting tidbits from the NSS, so that you don’t have to read it.

The US is vulnerable, or in the document’s words, “…the homeland is no longer a sanctuary.” (emphasis in original) What is it vulnerable from? While the focus has clearly shifted from terrorism, there’s frequent mention of “cyber threats”. The term “cyber” appears 12 times in the Summary.

Competition is indeed a recurring feature. The subtitle of the 2018 NSS is “Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge”. There are phrases in the introduction that illustrate Trump’s tendency to America’s relations as being competitive, such as “…emerging from strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding” and the declaration that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” As a response to a more competitive strategic environment, the US aims to “foster a competitive mindset” and “prioritize preparedness for war”.

China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea are the main features. In the 14-page summary, the word “China” appears 12 times in the Summary; Russia and North Korea appear 10 times, and Iran 9 times. In comparison, ISIS is mentioned twice.

China is described as a “strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors…”; Russia “…pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors.”; North Korea continues “outlaw actions and reckless rhetoric…”; and Iran “continues to sow violence…”.  

What part of Asia matters?

So far, Harding notes that the White House’s Asia policy is… a lack of policy. There’s a lack of ambassadors in Asia—like, embassies are literally devoid of an appointed Ambassador—especially in key US partners such as Singapore. As Harding observed, Asia is indeed a high priority, but only for the parts that fit Trump’s agenda as I have written in the previous section. In other words, China and North Korea are the ones that are featured in the top of Trump’s list. As for Southeast Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific, the policy is that of “continuity” which is really an euphemism for “not being important enough”.

Harding then brought up Secretary Pompeo’s recent speech declaring the US vision of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (see here too). What does a “free and open Indo-Pacific” look like? Here’s a quote from Pompeo:

When we say “free” Indo-Pacific, it means we all want all nations, every nation, to be able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries. At the national level, “free” means good governance and the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties.

When we say “open” in the Indo-Pacific, it means we want all nations to enjoy open access to seas and airways. We want the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. This is key for international peace and for each country’s attainment of its own national aims.

Economically, “open” means fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, and improved connectivity to drive regional ties – because these are the paths for sustainable growth in the region.

It remains to be seen how the US seeks to implement this rhetoric. The usage of the term “Indo-Pacific” also raises question: does this mean China will be included? This is unlikely due to the ongoing trade war. There’s also the issue of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue trying to be revived, which suggests India will be an integral part of an Indo-Pacific security architecture. Yet this remains rhetoric.

The “open” element in Pompeo’s speech could also suggest increased US commitment in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. So far, this is practiced in sustained Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.


Harding closed the session with a candid remark (which I paraphrase), “Don’t believe the President’s Twitter feed!”

While that was clearly meant as a joke, it reflects the difficulty of explaining Trump’s Asia policy in a coherent manner. What we can deduce so far are:

  1. Trump’s general foreign policy is largely characterized by competition and an “America First” attitude (which has nicely been satirized by John Oliver).
  2. Trump’s main focus is China and North Korea; others are a low priority at the moment.
  3. Trump focuses on economic issues, with a side of security.
  4. The policy is that there is no policy.

So, unless you’re China or North Korea, you don’t need to be worried about the US for the time being. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Seminar: CSIS Lecture Series (Jakarta)

Date of seminar: 2 August 2018

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