Beyond balancing – Trump’s Asia-Pacific policy

This January Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. By that time, his populist campaign promises had already created a great stir and divisively influenced the American society (protection and repatriation of the US industry and jobs, imposition of high customs on the goods from China and other countries, approaching Russia, etc.). After his election and inauguration the whole world is just helplessly watching how the leader of the greatest power stirs up the existing order with his first steps. The Asia-Pacific region that attracted so much attention under the Obama Administration has been thrust into the background, and the complex foreign political strategy mainly built on the allies seems to get simpler and disrupted.


In 2016 Donald Trump was the presidential candidate for the Republican Party at the US presidential election and committed himself towards the populist direction with his slogan “Make America Great Again!”, primarily addressing the down-and-out lower middle-class US citizen voters,[1] who had lost their jobs owing to the desindustrialisation upon the settlement of corporations abroad. His policy guideline concerning the US foreign policy was also determined by gaining supporters, and he aimed to provide less public good to the world and focus on the USA’s economy and capacity growth instead.

His main campaign promises also focused on this strategy, and one of his key guidelines was to save the American industry and economy. Therefore, he held out the prospect of imposing customs against several countries and  building a fence on the Mexican border, at the Mexicans’ expense. Also, he intended to review the free trade agreements that are unfavourable to the US (NAFTA, TPP), and, in order to decrease the foreign budget, to reform the NATO and inspire the allies in order to become more independent with respect to their self-defence abilities (Japan, South Korea).[2]

China, the country receiving the most criticism was condemned by Trump because not only do the American factories settle abroad and thus the Americans lose their jobs, which causes damage to their economy, but their currency (yuan) is also manipulated in order to get into a more advantageous position. In reply to this, the imposition of 45 per cent customs has been introduced concerning the Chinese import products, which is drastic increase as compared to the present one.[3] As a response, China threatened with a commercial war between the two countries, which would in all likelihood affect the whole world. Although some analyses suggest that China would suffer more from a potential commercial war as one-fifth of the Chinese export is directed to America, which comprises about 4 per cent of the GDP, then approx. one-tenth of the US export goes to China, which is less than 1 per cent of the United States GDP.[4] In all certainty, it would be painful for both countries because the two economies are grown together and we are talking about one of the bilateral relationships (maybe the most important one) in the world. However, the Asian country is more important to the US economy than vice versa as the cheap products from toys to clothes manufactured by China and filling the shelves of American stores could not be replaced easily. Consumers should face a considerable price increase, especially if the factories settle home, which would make the prices soar. According to the estimate of Goldman Sachs, the cost of manufacturing clothes and smart phones would rise by 46 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively.[5] Therefore, this may lead to a serious American recession, which would be right the opposite result for Trump rather than the original purpose.


On 9th November, 2016 Donald Trump won the presidential election and became the new President of the USA against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. True to his campaign promises, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and announced that he would reform NAFTA but he might as well withdraw from it if necessary. He did this because in his opinion this would not be favourable for the US. Furthermore, President Trump accepted the congratulatory phone call of the Taiwanese President and promised to keep cracking down. We do not not the clear reasons for this: whether it is a conscious part of his foreign policy or he only wants to show the citizen voters at home that while some people suppose that the Obama Administration was only speaking and their foreign policy was ineffective,[6] Trump is going to take action. However, although the application of excessive power can be productive in the long term, it ignores the complexity of the global world and the effect on the allies.

On 20 January this year the new President was inaugurated. Three days later Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) according to his promise. The concept itself and the negotiations had been initiated by the Obama Administration five years ago; however, the Congress had never ratified it.[7] This free trade agreement covered the countries of the Asia-Pacific Region, which was partly established by the parties aiming to stop the increase of the Chinese influence. The purpose of the former American leadership was to provide an alternative for the countries of the region against China in order to maintain the balance and prevent the fast spreading of Chinese influence. The countries of the region also received this idea favourably as they hope to prevent China from setting up rules one-sidedly in the future. TTP has provided a multilateral agreement in which they would have enforced their interests jointly. Disregarding this partnership now, the US rather intends to enter into bilateral agreements where it can dictate the conditions thanks to its dominant economic position. However, this puts its allies in a difficult position because they feel disappointed and are likely to consider approaching China without any other alternatives.

Afterwards, the US announced that at the following meeting it will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the Mexican and Canadian leadership. Then it added if the partners are not ready to offer a fair partnership to the US workers and citizens, it will withdraw from the 23-year-old agreement.[8]

The relationship with China started with tensions, in accordance with the mood of the campaign promises. In early February the Trump Administration’s stormy relationship with China calmed down surprisingly. In his phone call of 9th February, President Trump assured Chinese President Xi Jinping that the USA still observes the “One China” policy. The friendly US-China relations were in danger because after the inauguration Trump answered Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s phone call and then he questioned the “One China” policy before the public.[9] Following this, the tensions suddenly started to ease off.


According to the official website of the White House, his highest priority has become the struggle against the ISIS and other radicalised Islamic terrorist groups.[10] As compared to the Obama Administration, this is a great turn because the old focal point has come into the foreground again. The Asian projection of its foreign policy envisaging the “rebuilding” of the US Army ranks only second after the Near East. As it is stated, the fleet of the naval forces consisted of 500 ships in 1991, today it only possesses 275 ships, while the air defence has decreased to one-third since 1991.[11] This is mainly due to the fact that the Chinese enforce their interests more and more aggressively on the South China Sea and on the East China Sea. Under the Obama Administration no considerable progress was made regarding the South China Sea affair and the island disputes. However, that is why the Chinese pushed on on the South China Sea by building artificial islands and thus establishing military bases, which the surrounding countries could not prevent.

According to certain analysts, the US Administration has got into a difficult situation, not only because the Chinese naval force is actually present on nearly the entire South China Sea but, thanks to the military modernisation, the weapons developed by them can annihilate the aircraft carrier cherished by the Americans and deemed as the symbol of hegemony. In this way the US fleet will be squeezed out of the region in a couple of years[12] since if they see any chance that their ship gets annihilated, they will not take the risk of commanding their ships there.[13] At the same time, if they are unable to grant the security of the region, the allied states become uncertain and will not trust the US leadership and their ally approach is questioned, which may also make the US approach China. On the other hand, the region is going to arm to an even greater extent. In all likelihood, China will establish the air defence identification zone here, too (as it did on the East China Sea),[14] which will ultimately squeeze the Americans beyond the first island chain and the Great Wall at Sea will be developed. In order to prevent this, Trump builds his Asian foreign political strategy on the development of the army so that he can deploy the largest fleet possible in the region. However, numerous analysts are of the opposite view concerning how successful these tactics can be.[15]

The only country to represent a considerable power and support the policy balancing with China is Japan. After Trump’s election Japan was disappointed owing to the US’s withdrawal from TPP and the concept that Trump excepts higher financial contribution from the countries in order to grant their security. At present they spend 1 per cent of their GDP on defence; however, they are not allowed to spend more at the US’s request.[16] Therefore, in recent times Japan’s confidence in its key ally has been shaken concerning their defence. This distrust was so serious that Abe Shinzo was the first to pay an official visit to the newly elected Donald Trump and, ignoring his advisors’ suggestion, he did not start a debate with the new President in commercial and security political issues. In lieu of this, he emphasised the necessity of consolidating the relationship between the two countries.[17] The new US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, who was the first member of the new Administration to travel on an official journey abroad, first visited Japan and then South Korea. In Tokyo he confirmed the defence treaty between the two countries and assured both countries about the commitment of the US towards their allies. Furthermore, according to the military cooperation concluded with the previous Government of the Philippines, Japan handed over the first two warships to the country, which Duerte could use to strengthen the Filippino army, one of the most underdeveloped armies in the region.[18] This means that Japan has not given up balancing the region, which has two alternatives: either they continue cooperating with Trump and hope that the US foreign policy will go back to the earlier traditions or they continue establishing a new security architecture in the region.[19]

In South Korea James Masttis held negotiations on the installation of THAAD US rocket defence system and the parties entered into an agreement later. The US rocket protective screen was able to stop the ballistic missiles launched from North Korea more and more frequently,[20] which makes Seoul feel threatened, too. This, however, resulted in the deterioration of the relations between China and South Korea. The reason for this is that the Chinese rhetoric supposes it is a high strategic and security risk for the neighbouring countries such as China and Russia; what is more, it can even upset the balance of the region,[21] and it is rather oriented against it than against North Korea because the Beijing Leadership think the US would like to observe the Chinese activities in this way. As a result, a boycott was initiated against Korean firms and the number of tourists travelling to South Korea also started to fall.[22] China has declared such a boycott one time, against the Philippine banana export.[23] Finally, this was successful because after his election, the new President Rodrigo Duterte started to approach China and they lifted the sanctions together.


Concerning the Asia-Pacific Region (habár nem tartozik bele) it is essential how the relations with the NATO and Russia develop. On 17 March, after Donald Trump and Angela Merkel’s meeting the US President turned to the “twitter diplomacy” again to declare that Germany owes to the NATO and thus to the United States, too. Therefore, the NATO called upon the Member States to allocate 2 per cent of their GDP on defence, which is currently fulfilled by 5 of the 28 Member States, in particular the USA, Great Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. At present Germany devotes 1.2 per cent of its GDP on defence, which still ranks second after the United States.[24]

The Russian military intervention performed in Ukraine in 2014 resulted in Western sanctions and strategic pressure, which inspired Moscow to conclude closer cooperation with China. However, Donald Trump’s campaign promise and election can hold out the promise that the US will normalise its relations with Russia and thus it will be able to tear Moscow from Beijing. American political analysts suppose that it would be reasonable for Trump to conduct Kissinger’s Triangular Policy and open towards the weaker power (Russia), creating a balance against the stronger power (China).[25] With Russia standing in the background, China could have a far stronger position in a potential confrontation against the US. Therefore, if Trump would like to have an advantage over China, he should normalize his relations with Russia, as Richard Nixon did that during the Cold War against the Soviet Union when he restored his relations with China.[26]

Nevertheless, the Syrian incident of 7 April can make sweeping changes in the normalisation of the Russian relations. Presumably, the Assad Regime resorted to chemical weapons against the civilian population, and as a reply, Donald Trump commanded a military air strike in the region. This affected Moscow rather negatively, which may result in the movement of the US-Russia relationship in a negative direction.[27]


Donald Trump’s present foreign policy is ambiguous; however, the definite refusal and inward-looking plan within the campaign seems to ease off. While on the one hand he highlights that the US will withdraw from the hegemon role and focus on the development of the domestic economy, infrastructure etc. and on the other hand he will concentrate on development, he declares to rebuild the US Army and the foreign policy will rest on US interests and states that will become more peaceful and flourishing with a strong and highly-respected USA.[28] For the time being it is not clear whether there is a large-scale foreign political strategy that it follows or it is just taking shape now. What seems to be certain is that the complex foreign political guideline followed during the Obama Administration turned onto a simplified path and the application of power is emphasised more.

Therefore, one may raise the question because in some people’s opinion an excellent opportunity has opened to the Chinese leadership to challenge the global leading role of the US; however, will it actually do that and if so whether it is prepared for that. At present the two powers act in total contradiction to each other: the Trump Administration seems to be hot-tempered and careless, while the Beijing leadership takes every step very conscientiously. However, these steps are getting larger and braver. It seems as if the foreign political strategies of the two countries have been inverted in recent times. While Trump escapes from multilateralism into bilateral relations, wants to leave behind the US’s global responsibility and politicise only according to the national interests, the Beijing leadership is opening to the global world more and more and is committed to globalism and multilateralism. It was the first time that the President of the People’s Republic of China had attended the World Economic Forum held in Davos this year and he delivered a speech that we could have expected from the US President according to the current world order.[29] Based on the present situation, it is not China that suddenly took the lead but the vanguards stepped back, putting China in a favourable position.[30] Therefore, President Trump should be committed towards a clear foreign policy and clarify the role and place of the US in the Asia-Pacific Region and in the establishment of the new Asian order.

Author: Alexandra Zoltai


[1] Gest, Justin: “The Two Kinds of Trump Voters.” In: Politico Magazine, 8 February 2017.

[2]Viggo, Peter Jakobsen: “Doomsday Cancelled: Trump is Good News for Allies and World Peace.” In: CSS, 8 March 2017.

[3] Office of the United State Trade Representative.

[4] “Averting a Chinese-American trade war.” In: The Economist, 30 March 2017.

[5] “Averting a Chinese-American trade war.” In: The Economist, 30 March 2017.

[6] Ferguson, Niall: Donald Trump’s New World Order. In: The American Interest, Volume 12, Number 4. 21 November 2016.

[7]Diamond, Jeremy – Bash, Dana: “Trump signs order withdrawing from TPP, reinstate ‘Mexico City policy’ on abortion.” In: CNN, 24 January 2017.

[8] America First Foreign Policy. In: The White House.

[9] Panda, Anakit: After Trump-Xi Call, US-China Interactions Expand, But Direction Remains Unclear.” In: The Diploma, 2017. február 22.

[10] America First Foreign Policy. In: The White House.

[11]America First Foreign Policy. In: The White House.

[12] ESZTERHAI Viktor – KLEMENSITS Péter. 2016. “A dél-kínai-tengeri szigetek ügyében hozott hágai ítélet geopolitikai következményei.” In: PAGEO Policy Brief I. 25.07.2016.

[13] Although the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who has also had economic interests in the region, declared has tough action related to the South China Sea and the Chinese. They have to stop the works carried out in that area and the Americans  have to prevent the Chinese from getting close to the islands. Etzioni, Amitai: „Tillerson, Trump and the South China Sea.” In: The Diplomat, 28 January 2017.

[14] Almond, Roncevert Ganan: “South China Sea: The Case Against an ADIZ.” In: The Diplomat, 2016. szeptember 13.

[15] White, Hugh: “Why Trump’s budget boost won’t strenghten US defences.” In: East Asia Forum, 27 March 2017.

[16] “Keeping the peace.” The Economist, 14 May 2014.

[17] Ramirez, Carlos: „Abe’s Trump Challenge and Japan’s Foreign Policy Choices:” In: The Diplomat, 7 March 2017.

[18] Prashanth Parameswaran: “Philippines Commissions New Japan Coast Guard Vessel.” In: The Diplomat, 11 March 2017.

[19] Ramirez, Carlos: “Abe’s Trump Challenge and Japan’s Foreign Policy Choices:” In: The Diplomat, 7 March 2017.

[20] This year  there have been blastoffs nearly every month.

  • 12 February. “North Korea conducts ballistic missile test.” In: BBC, 12 February 2017.
  • 6 March. “North Korea’s Launch of Ballistic Missiles RaisesNew Worries.” In: New York Times, 6 March 20176.
  • 5 April. The latest blastoff was carried out prior to Xi Jinping and Donald Trump’s meeting. “North Korean missile fired ahead of US-China summit.” In: BBC, 5 April 2017.

[21]Xie Tao: “How Did Xhina Lose South Korea?” In: The Diplomat, 9 March 2017.

[22] Gibson, Jenna: “China’s Tourist Boycott Backfires on South Korea’s Jeju Island.” In: The Diplomat, 23 March 2017.

[23] Peel, Michael – Ramos, Grace: “Philippine banana bonzana sparks debate on shift to China.” In: The Financial Time, 14 March 2017.

[24] Gramer, Robbie: “White House Rejects Claims Trump Gave Merkel Fake $376 Billion ’Bill’ For NATO Payments.” In: Foreign Policy 27 March 2017.

[25] Oudenaren, John S. Van: „Why Trump Can’t Breeak Russia Away From China.” In: The Diplomat, 23 February 2017.

[26] Allison, Graham – Simes, Dimitri K.: „A Blueprint for Donald Trump to Fix Relations with Russia.” In: The National Interest, 18 December 2016.

[27][27] Majumdar, Dave: „How Russia Will Respond to America’s Missile Strike in Syria.” In: The National Interest, 7 April 2017.

[28] America First Foreign Policy. In: The White House.

[29]XI, Jinping. 2017. „PresidentXi’sspeechto Davos infull.” In: World Economic Forum. 17 January 2017.

[30]„Is China challenging the United States for global leadership?” In: The Economist, 1 April 2017.

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