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Understanding Trump’s Asia-Pacific foreign policy

Friday, January 20, 2017, 09:57 GMT+7

Editor’s note: Dr. Terry F. Buss, a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration, discusses the possible Asia-Pacific foreign policy of President Donald Trump, who officially takes office on Friday, in this piece written exclusively for Tuoi Tre News.

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is an enigma. He has few policy papers available for analysis; he has no track record in public office; he has published little about his opinions; and his cabinet appointees are not known for foreign policy expertise. Trump’s policies originate from off-the-cuff remarks at political rallies and in media interviews. Tweets capturing Trump’s policy in 140 characters abound. Policies are ever changing, inconsistent or undeveloped.

So, as Trump takes office this Friday, what can be said about his foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region?

Foreign Policy Team

In the foreign policy arena, Trump appointed three highly-respected retired generals and one business tycoon: James Mattis, Defense; John Kelly, Homeland Security; Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor; and Rex Tillerson, State, respectively.

Trump has created a “team of rivals” who represent competing policy views. Trump and no one else will  decide actions to take. Other presidents have tried this approach, but they typically air their views in private. Trump’s appointments have been very vocal in their disagreements with Trump. Critics are skeptical about this model’s effectiveness.

Clearly, the appointment of generals signals that Trump values strong military-style leadership.


Overall, Trump seems very positive about the US relationship with Vietnam. Trump wants to continue to build upon it. It appears that Trump would build on US-Vietnamese cooperative security arrangements.

Trump’s willingness to take a strong position on the East Vietnam Sea could benefit Vietnam as it manages the issues with the Chinese. Vietnam has already agreed on a framework with China for managing the issue. Duterte’s China partnership may create a slight glitch: Vietnam had hoped to develop a common framework for countries dealing with the East Vietnam Sea issue, but could change the equation.

Vietnam benefitted most under TPP so it would be a blow should it fail. TPP could be salvaged by working with other countries in the region. Also work on treaty has already led to advances in Vietnam’s economy.

In the end, Vietnam will likely continue is long standing “independent foreign policy.”


China seems to be the major issue for Trump. Trump paints China as a regional bully with global ambitions. Trump rejects China’s “One China” policy toward Taiwan. He thinks China has benefitted from trade relations that have disadvantaged the US, especially through currency manipulation and restricting market access by US firms. He accuses China of stealing military and commercial secrets through “cyber attacks.” He blames China for not dealing with North Korea as a nuclear threat. East Sea disputes are a major issue. Trump believes climate change was invented to help make China more economically competitive.

Trump will press China hard on Taiwan. But China has already said Taiwan “is not negotiable.” Cyber security will be “beefed up” and directed against China. Tillerson recently stated that the US will demand that China cease its reclamation and militarization of “islands” in the East Vietnam Sea. Trump plans to use trade as leverage to force China to change its behavior. Trump also has announced he will rebuild the US military, especially the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

The US and China appear to be heading for a “showdown.”


Trump and his administration are deeply divided over Russia. Trump and Flynn are great admirers of President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Tillerson, Mattis and Kelly believe that Russia is the greatest threat to the US. Much of the Congress, including Republicans, also recognize the Russian threat.

These cleavages could set up major confrontations for Trump in the US. Already, Trump’s dealings with Russia during the presidential campaign and the cyber security issues in Russia’s electoral interference are under investigation by the FBI and Congress. This could be debilitating for Trump.

Trump wants to partner with Putin against Islamic State terrorists. He thinks he can convince Russia to give up much of its nuclear arsenal. Trump intends to remove sanctions on Russia imposed over its occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine and interference in the US elections to build better relations with Putin. But, Congress is attempting to add more sanctions.

Trump believes NATO—the military alliance of 28 European countries—is “obsolete.” The fact that the US funds 70% of NATO’s costs and does nothing to fight terrorism annoys him. Putin must be ecstatic, as the elimination of NATO is perhaps his major goal. NATO and the European Union, not to mention Eastern European countries, are pressuring Trump not to cave to Putin.

The Philippines

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has managed to make himself an international pariah over his drug policies. Thousands of drug dealers have been executed in vigilante, extra-legal operations.

Duterte has now partnered with China, accepting favorable trade deals and abandoning the US military alliance. He appears to have softened his claims against China which is encroaching on Filipino territory in the East Vietnam Sea.

Trump has spoken to Duterte congratulating him on his drug crackdown. Both seem to be building a strong relationship. Duterte has placed the Philippines in the enviable position of having the US and China compete for his favor.

North Korea, South Korea

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is becoming more and more contentious. Leader Kim Jong Un recently announced that he will test long range missiles aimed at the US. Trump tweeted “It won’t happen.” Trump and his advisors recognize the seriousness of North Korea, and will take strong actions against it. Nonetheless, Trump appears willing to meet with Kim.

Trump’s policy toward South Korea remains unclear. The recent impeachment of President Park Geun-hye could drastically alter Korean foreign policy depending on who replaces her. Leftist parties favor a US military withdrawal from Korea while others prefer an American presence. While campaigning, Trump favored a withdrawal, but recently has pledged to defend Korea. Korea, and Japan, are critical for security of the region. Trump seems to recognize this.


Over the past two months, Japan has been trying to figure out what Trump’s foreign policy is, even though PM Shinzo Abe recently visited Trump in New York.

The most important issue for Japan was just settled by Tillerson: the US would defend Japan were it to be attacked by China over the East China Sea, even though Trump has complained that Japan is not contributing enough to its own defense. He has not recently proposed that Japan become a nuclear power.

Trump continues to make negative statements about Japan. He blames Japan, along with China and Mexico, for the US trade imbalance. He recently threatened Toyota: he will place high tariffs on cars exported from its proposed new plant in Mexico. Trump is serious about a new protectionist policy.

The Japanese are publically wondering whether they should move away from their US-centric foreign policy.

Conclusion: Trump’s initial actions on foreign policy suggest that there will be no unifying theme, principle or ideology. Each decision will be ad hoc. Inconsistency will reign. Endless change and revision will govern. Out of chaos some good might come: being unpredictable might cause nations to be more careful and less aggressive toward one another. Or things could get out of hand.


Trump strongly opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal negotiated with 12 nations in the region. Trump proposes to renegotiate the deals individually to more “fairly” realize US interests. This policy would cede trade dominance in the Asia-Pacific region to China and likely represent a withdrawal of the US from the region.

What appeared to be a non-negotiable position may be weakening. Trump advisors are “hinting” that TPP might be saved by modifying it rather than rejecting it. No one knows what will happen.

Terry F. Buss


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