Donald Trump's questionable strategy in Asia: The Yomiuri Shimbun columnist

US President Donald Trump boards Air force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey on July 3, 2017.
US President Donald Trump boards Air force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey on July 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Francis Fukuyama

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)-Since his election last November, anxious countries around the world have been trying to divine what U.S. President Donald Trump's strategy toward their region would be. This has proven to be an extremely frustrating exercise, since his administration has acted in contradictory ways since taking office in January.

Trump's own beliefs appear to be highly nationalistic and isolationist. He stated clearly at his inauguration that the goal of his administration would be to put "America first" in both economic and security policy.

This slogan, used by isolationists like the aviator Charles Lindberg who opposed U.S. entry into World War II, suggests that the United States would enact protectionist economic policies, and would pull away from international commitments, including those to close traditional allies like those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliance, Japan, and South Korea.

These inclinations were supported by close advisers like Steve Bannon, an ideologue who was editor of the conspiracy-minded Breitbart News.

On the other hand, Trump appointed a mainstream and competent foreign policy team, including Defence Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. These officials have for the most part staked out traditional U.S. foreign policy positions; Mattis in particular has travelled multiple times to Asia and Europe trying to assure allies that U.S. support for them has not changed.

Yet every time that Trump's foreign policy begins to look normal, Trump himself does something to undercut that narrative. For example, during his visit to the NATO summit in May, Trump pointedly rejected a version of a speech reiterating U.S.' commitment to defend NATO allies under Article 5, substituting a different version at the last moment and evidently to the surprise of his own officials.

Many of Trump's advisers were strongly supportive, like virtually all U.S. allies, of the United States staying in the Paris Agreement on climate change, and yet Trump decided to leave the accord. He asserted, bizarrely, that other countries would "stop laughing at the United States" as a result.

While Trump has had warm and uncritical words for authoritarian strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, he has been openly critical of democratic allies like Australia, Canada, Germany and South Korea.

So would Trump support an ally like Estonia if it came under attack by Russia? Would the United States back Japan against China in a confrontation over the Senkaku Islands? Even after six months in office, it is impossible to say.

There are other grave uncertainties about Trump's policy toward Asia.

As a candidate, he pledged to impose a 45 per cent tariff against Chinese goods and to declare China a currency manipulator on "day one" of his administration. He also complained about Japan and South Korea not contributing enough to their own defence, and wanted to make the latter pay for deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). He also threatened in a tweet that a long range North Korean nuclear capability "wasn't going to happen."

Yet Trump held early meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and assured Japan of continuing support, and has failed to confront China on virtually any issue, from currency to the South China Sea. He has made no effort to prepare for actual conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Much of this soft line on China proceeded from Trump's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April, where Trump reportedly pressed the Chinese leader to put pressure on North Korea to cease its nuclear testing and missile programmes.

It is theoretically possible that Trump could reach a grand bargain with North Korea if he was willing to talk to Pyongyang on a bilateral basis. In return for receiving recognition as a nuclear power, it might agree to freeze its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. China's relationship with Pyongyang has worsened in recent months, and Beijing might be induced to put greater pressure on North Korea if it received assurances that U.S. forces would withdraw from the Korean Peninsula in the event of unification.

Perhaps a Henry Kissinger, a former U.S. secretary of state, might be able to pull off a grand bargain like this, but Trump is very unlikely to do so.

Xi played brilliantly to Trump's vanity. The Chinese leader flattered Trump while at the same time approving licenses for daughter Ivanka Trump's products. This led Trump to assert that Xi was "a good man."

Trump was convinced that China would help solve his North Korea problem, and in return has backed away from any hostile acts toward China: no designation of Beijing as a currency manipulator, no retaliatory tariffs and a reduced tempo of Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.

China could in fact shut down North Korea's economy by cutting off energy supplies and trade. But while it has curtailed coal imports, imports of iron ore and other goods have actually increased so far this year.

The basic logic of China's policy still applies: It will not do anything that might destabilise North Korea, since it does not want a unified Korea allied to the United States on its border. Furthermore, what rational leader would strike a risky grand bargain with Trump and expect him to stick to it if the going got tough?

Over the years, Trump's business partners have lost plenty of money, expecting that he would honour his commitments. And his administration has been plagued by leaks, which would undercut any complex secret negotiation.

It has become clear that Xi is not living up to his side of the bargain. Trump acknowledged this in a recent tweet, in which he stated, "While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi and China to help with North Korea, it hasn't worked out."

Will Trump now shift toward a more aggressive policy and threaten unilateral military action, or will he continue the status quo, hoping that some combination of sanctions and isolation will deter Pyongyang? But the truth is that the United States has very few other cards to play now that the China gambit has failed.

So what will happen as North Korea tests further ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons and continues its outrageous behaviour like its cruel treatment of the American student Otto Warmbier, who died after being returned from a North Korean prison? This question is as uncertain as when Trump took office back in January.

Trump's domestic troubles will inevitably shape his policy toward Asia.

Far from being an American dictator, Trump's presidency is appearing weak and feckless as his legislative agenda falters and his inner circle is investigated by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Foreign policy is the only domain where Trump is free to act without significant checks and balances.

As his recent tweet suggests, Trump does not seem to want to add a confrontation with China to the troubles he is facing. But at a certain point he might. Trump was widely praised for being willing, unlike former U.S. President Barack Obama, to strike at Syria for chemical weapons use.

As Trump's popularity ratings fall domestically (he is now the most unpopular of all recent U.S. presidents, only six months into his term), he may be strongly tempted to take a tough line in foreign policy to compensate. And Northeast Asia is unfortunately one region where there is a confrontation waiting to happen.