Former U.S. President Donald Trump left office with his administration’s domestic policies having shaken the United States to its core and some historians ranking him among the most divisive American leaders to ever set foot in the Oval Office.
But his policies toward Asia, or what the Trump White House termed the Indo-Pacific, may ultimately tell a different story.
While many of these policies were erratic, bore little immediate fruit or appeared to severely damage partnerships, some of the fundamentals are expected to survive his administration’s departure as holdovers that could be expanded on and refined by his successor, President Joe Biden.
One such holdover that could serve as a blueprint or starting point for the Biden administration’s approach to the region, some say, is the Trump White House’s national security strategy for the Indo-Pacific, which was drafted in 2017, endorsed by Trump the following year and declassified just last week.
The document revealed details of the Trump administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, including Japan’s role as well as a plan to “deny,” “defend” and “dominate” China in the western Pacific.
While some have assailed it as lacking substance, others have praised it for setting the U.S. on a fresh path with not only a rising China, but the region as a whole.
The Indo-Pacific strategy from early in the Trump administration “was a fundamental, critical & far from inevitable step toward shifting U.S. strategy in right direction — toward prioritizing Asia & confronting China,” Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, wrote on Twitter last week.
Contrary to criticism that the Trump White House had veered toward a one-dimensional, military-led regional policy, other observers say, the document outlined a clear recognition of the need to confront China via stronger engagement with allies. This echoes what Biden and company have said so far about tackling the challenges in Asia, including those presented by Beijing.
“If the intent all along was to amplify American effectiveness by respecting and uniting allies, then a rounded 2020s evolution of the … strategy will stand a significantly better chance of success under Biden than it would have under a second Trump term,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, wrote in an analysis last week for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank.
During his first campaign for president in 2016, Trump accused China of “raping” the U.S. with unfair economic practices and slammed Beijing over ramped-up military and diplomatic pressure in the security sphere.
In his first year in office, his administration labeled China a “strategic competitor” — not a partner — and a “revisionist power” in its National Security Strategy. In the disputed South China Sea, his administration also oversaw bolstered freedom of navigation operations, which increased in each year of his term, and a number of joint training exercises that brought in other navies concerned about Beijing’s assertiveness in the strategic waterway.
The administration also declared that it stood by countries around the globe in not allowing Beijing “to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” It openly declared for the first time that China’s claims in the waterway are “completely unlawful” and sanctioned more than 20 Chinese companies for playing “a significant role” in China’s construction of military bases on artificial islands.
In its second year, the administration began an economic conflict with Beijing that lasted through Trump’s presidency and saw the implementation of tariffs, the labeling of China as a currency manipulator and the start of a tech war that saw a raft of restrictions slapped on Chinese companies such as ZTE, Huawei and TikTok owner ByteDance.
“The Trump administration rightly raised alarm bells about China’s aspirations and plans to become dominant in 21st century strategic technologies,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It cracked down harder on Chinese attempts to use various methods to steal American technology and know-how.”
Trump also steamrolled over taboos that had long loomed over the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. From accepting a congratulatory call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen to dispatching top officials to the island for some of the highest-level visits in decades, the administration’s moves infuriated China but put a renewed focus on its fate.
“The Trump administration gave a shot of adrenaline to what was already a robust unofficial relationship: Contacts between D.C. and Taipei became both more frequent and more visible during President Trump’s time in office,” said Margaret Lewis, an expert on Taiwanese politics and a law professor at Seton Hall University.
But the smashing of taboos, while welcomed by Taipei, came at a cost, as the Chinese military ramped up unprecedented pressure on Taiwan, with military aircraft frequently operating near Taiwan and crossing the strait’s center line, renewing long-standing fears that Beijing could be preparing for an invasion.
Ultimately, although the results of many of these moves have been mixed, they saw the Trump administration approach Beijing from an unorthodox position that has created an opportunity for the next administration to tackle the China challenge differently, experts say.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state nominee, has highlighted this new space, signaling Tuesday in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Trump had been “right in taking a tougher approach to China,” although he said he “very much disagreed” with some of Trump’s tactics.
For Tokyo, Trump’s time in office saw the U.S.-Japan relationship rise in importance as then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cultivated close ties with the mercurial American president, giving him the president’s ear and, in effect, a stronger voice on issues affecting Asia.
Although Trump variously withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal championed by Japan and threatened to withdraw American troops from Japan if it did not cough up the cash he demanded for hosting them, Tokyo by and large was able to ride out these storms and take advantage of the Trump presidency in a number of ways.
In the security realm, the U.S.-Japan alliance soared to levels hitherto unseen despite Trump’s extortionary approach to cost-sharing. Tokyo managed to fend off his pernicious demands that reportedly saw him insist on $8 billion annually for hosting U.S. forces, more than quadruple the current level, as the two countries bolstered security ties via joint military exercises and concluded a number of advanced weapons sales.
Amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region — a trend that has unnerved Tokyo — the Trump administration also picked up the banner of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” a concept originally conceived by Abe, while reinvigorating the “Quad” grouping that involves the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.
On the economic front, Trump’s team added heft to a Japanese push to offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure program, including via the creation of the Blue Dot Network, a joint project by the United States, Australia and Japan intended to promote “quality,” “sustainable” and “transparent” infrastructure through a process of certification or grading.
While Japan was deeply disappointed by Trump’s move to pull out of the TPP after years of hard-fought negotiations, Aki Tonami, an associate professor of international relations and economics at the University of Tsukuba, noted that the withdrawal had a number of knock-on effects.
Tonami said it accelerated the conclusion of the deal that emerged from the TPP’s ashes, the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, while adding a sense of mission and urgency to completing the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, which she said had been “notoriously slow until Mr. Trump came into power.”
Trump’s moves in the tech sector also served as a wake-up call, Tonami said, highlighting the nexus of economy and security and jolting Japan into a keener awareness of the realpolitik involved.
“Perhaps we must thank Mr. Trump for a rude awakening,” she added.
Based on statements by the new president and his team, the tech war and economic mistrust between the U.S. and China is expected to continue under Biden, although it will likely be masked, especially in the new administration’s opening days, by talk of more cooperation and less animosity.
From “fire and fury” to “love letters” between Trump and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, the administration’s policy toward Pyongyang upended decades of established norms. Trump’s dramatic about-face took the two countries from the brink of war in 2017 to historic denuclearization talks with Kim the following year, with the U.S. president meeting the North Korean leader on three occasions during his time in office.
Although Trump’s diplomatic endeavors did not result in an elimination of the North Korean nuclear arsenal — contrary to his initial assertions, Pyongyang has continued to develop its weapons program — they did open potential new avenues for the U.S. to rein in the nuclear threat.
“Trump has at least lowered the cost for Biden to meet Kim should he eventually decide to do so, inoculating him against some of the inevitable criticism that he is showing weakness by sitting down with a dictator when a Republican president has done so first,” Katie Stallard, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson international Center for Scholars, wrote in The National Interest after Biden’s November election.
What’s more, Trump’s failures also gave momentum to a growing view that a more realistic approach to the North Korean nuclear issue may need to be examined, including an acknowledgment that Pyongyang will not relinquish its nuclear arsenal before receiving concessions.
Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state nominee, signaled Tuesday at his confirmation hearing that the new administration plans to review Washington’s entire approach and policy toward North Korea.
It’s unclear what, if any, shift this standard policy review will result in, but Biden has said that “principled diplomacy” will be his approach to the North and that he will meet with Kim only “on the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity.”
While details of this approach remain unclear, the Biden camp appears to be leaving room to maneuver.
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