Michael Swaine on Trump‘s Asia Team

Dr. Michael D. Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is an analyst in Chinese security studies, specializing in Chinese defense and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. He has authored several books and journal articles in these areas and advises the U.S. government on Asian security issues. He was interviewed by Jenifer Hanki on March. 19, 2018.

Many of Asia policy jobs in the Trump administration still remain vacant.  In the past, many potential appointees have been rejected by Trump due to their “Never Trump” campaign participation, which drained the Asia-oriented talent pool.  In addition, the Department of Defense deputy secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has had no previous experience with Asia focus.  Though there are some positive signs with Trump’s appointment of Randall Schriver to assistant secretary of defense of Asian Pacific affairs, how has the Trump administration’s lack of progress in fielding a top-notch Asia-team affected America’s Asia policy so far?

It certainly hasn’t been good. The current administration has yet to pick an ambassador for South Korea, which is the most glaring problem they have failed to address, along with the failure to confirm Susan Thornton as permanent Assistant Secretary for East Asia.  And now there is increasing opposition against Susan from people like Marco Rubio, who knows little about U.S.-China relations.  There is a huge lack of real guidance and knowledge from the State Department.  Now that Tillerson is gone, there is further disruption.  Mike Pompeo will hopefully create more order, but we don’t know what specific views he will put forth on Asia policy.   In addition, you don’t have anyone in the White House who is a major player on Asia policy. Matt Pottinger, the senior director for Asia at the NSC, is a nice person and I get along fine with him, but he is someone who reportedly has little clout in the administration.  He is a facilitator and supporter more than anything else.  And now with McMaster also gone and John Bolton put in his place, things could get even worse.  Bolton has disastrous views on China, Taiwan, and North Korea, favoring confrontation and force over dialogue and compromise.  He says he will follow Trump’s policies, but what are those?

There’s no good news here. Except for the fact that Susan Thornton remains in a powerful position where she can try to exert some of her knowledge and previous experience on the issues. But she might not be around much longer.  We recently had Randy Shriver appointed to a key position as Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia.  Randy knows Asia well, but his views are decidedly hawkish on China and he is a longstanding supporter of much closer US-Taiwan defense ties.  There are many concerns in China and elsewhere about what he may do, like following up on the recently passed Taiwan Travel Act by pushing for the sort of close ties with Taiwan that could provoke a crisis with Beijing.  The implications remain very unclear.  Hopefully he'll play a positive role instead of a negative one. There are very few people in the Trump Administration now who have a serious knowledge of Asia and an understanding of what needs to be executed and an increasing number of staffers in various agencies who regard China as a clear adversary.  And when we talk about the economic side, the picture just gets worse. You have Peter Navarro who is decidedly ill-informed on China trade policy.  He basically follows the extremist point of view, which is unlikely to produce anything productive in the real world as we now seem to be getting into a trade war with China.  It's a chaotic situation and there aren't very many silver linings to it.  

In your judgment, what is the Trump administration’s single most significant foreign policy achievement in Asia so far? What is its most significant misstep?

You can argue that their most important achievement has been to get North Korea to talk about denuclearization.  The Trump Administration claims with great emphasis that their high-pressure strategy toward Pyongyang is the only reason Kim Jong-Il has agreed to a meeting with Trump.  The pressure campaign probably contributed to this move, but there are a lot of other reasons why Kim has apparently decided that he wants to talk to Trump.  But nonetheless the ability of the Trump Administration to produce talks with North Korea and to receive support from China, South Korea, and Japan among others, is thus far an achievement of sorts.  That said, I don't think it's necessarily going to be a solution to the problem.  Talking is better than fighting but North Korea has talked before about denuclearization and yet here we are, with no solution in sight.  We'll have to see what happens if and when Trump meets with Kim at the end of May and we'll also have to see what happens at the Moon Summit in late April.  That will be quite significant in providing the content for the Trump Kim meeting. 

Now what is their greatest mistake? There's too many to enumerate.  For example, on his first day in office, Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a major misstep.  The ambiguous statements made early on about the One China policy was another major misstep; the bellicose statements that Trump made towards North Korea was another one; the undermining of allies through statements addressing their failure to provide financial support for the alliance yet another mistake.  There are just too many stupid mistakes. There’s too many to count!

Earlier this year in an exclusive interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Donald Trump had stated that he would reconsider the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal if the U.S. were to gain a “substantially better” position in the agreement.  In your opinion, how did Trump handle the TPP agreement?  Is there anything that the current administration could do to kindle some alternative agreement to gain a “substantially better” deal?

It's hard to know what's going to happen but the fact that the Japanese and others have pushed for the TPP-11, establishing a trading arrangement without the United States and China is notable. The Japanese have taken the lead on this and hopefully the TPP will still emerge and play a role in moving the region toward a more open trading system, with or without the United States.  And if the TPP shows success, perhaps Trump will feel enough pressure to start talking about reentering the TPP.  He has already asked for a commission to study the possibility of the US doing this, thus reversing his longstanding position against the pact.  But re-entering will be a very difficult thing to do, largely because the other members will not be inclined to renegotiate new agreements with Trump.  And of course Trump might decide to stick with his currently disastrous approach and keep the US out of the TPP.  We shall see.

Now in terms of an alternative TPP agreement, I am not familiar with the details of the TPP and what is and is not possible to change.  I'm sure that on some points, the United States might be able to get some kind of mutual understanding through concessions with the other partners. But it’s a difficult agreement; it's unwieldy and very large countries are involved; it will take a very long time to renegotiate.   It's not like NAFTA, which has fewer countries involved. It's a complex agreement that goes beyond simple tariffs. It's about reshaping domestic economic structures and trading regimes and how they operate with other countries. It's a big shift. Reentering the TPP with a mutual agreement to renegotiate might be too difficult and too much to think about at the moment .

Despite the Trump’s tough rhetoric regarding North Korea, the recent developments post-Olympics have shown some signs of diplomatic relationship-building as Trump has accepted an invitation from North Korea to discuss the country’s nuclear program.  Should the Trump-Kim meeting advance productive dialogue, what are the next steps the U.S. should take?  Is this a case where the U.S. should be wary of North Korea’s positive response and is it likely that Kim Jong-Un is trying to buy time for its nuclear program?

Well yes, very much so. I'm not a huge fan of this initiative largely because of Trump. Much depends on the level of pre-meeting preparations, as well as how Trump will act in his meeting with Kim, and whether he will take to heart a lot of what is discussed within this meeting. The best case scenario that comes out of this meeting is that the North Koreans indicate what their desires are and perhaps open up pathways for future talks for some kind of agreement while placing a freeze on testing. Keep in mind this meeting is not presented as some kind of negotiation. It will probably, at best, just aim at establishing some principles or ultimate goals that can serve as a foundation for subsequent negotiations.  That said, you never know how Trump might reinterpret the purpose of this meeting. The first priority should be trying to get the measure of Kim and define whether or not Kim is seriously interested under certain conditions to negotiate freezing, reducing, or even giving up his nuclear capabilities. The U.S. must test the will of Kim and whether he's willing to freeze some components of the program. It would be great if the North Koreans could agree to halt their abilities both in terms of their ability to strike the U.S. homeland and as well as avoiding proliferation of their other equipment such as missiles and nuclear weapons. The important thing is to reach a sufficient level of understanding so that Trump does not feel obligated to take any kind of military action. 

The obvious danger with this Trump-Kim meeting is that Trump could view it as a failure. In other words, Kim, from Trump’s perspective, might not give anything substantive whatsoever towards trying to move towards denuclearisation.  This could prompt Trump to conclude that “talks have failed,” because he is, after all, the “big negotiator,” the “big deal maker,” and if he cannot make a deal with Kim then nobody can. Such a conclusion could lead him to opt for some kind of disastrous military action.  The more that Trump can be channeled and controlled by people who know what they're doing, and luckily there are some people left in the government who know what they're doing on Korea policy, the more possibility there is to avoid a conflict. But Trump has recently shown that he's less and less willing to take the advice of people who know more than he does about these situations.   He could either push for too much or give away too much for very little and then create huge problems both domestically and abroad.  There could be a situation where Kim offers the U.S. enough for the Chinese to become more optimistic and start arguing in favor of easing the sanctions, thus creating a rift with the U.S.  And if South Korea leans more toward the Chinese view, as is possible, such a rift could become truly dangerous.

Recently, Xi has removed term limits on the Chinese presidency.  Do you see any reason that China’s recent changes to its domestic policies will complicate its relations with the United States?  In particular, how do you see Trump’s policies towards China evolving this year?

Different assessments are possible over the significance of these changes.  You can make an argument that, at least over the short to medium term, it makes sense for Xi to continue as the supreme leader in the state and the party, given the huge domestic challenges that China will face over the next 4-6 years.  Many analysts and observers believe that during that time period, China is going to come up against some very hard structural problems in the economy that will cause the growth rate to drop significantly.  And yet this will take place exactly when Xi will normally be leaving office.  Hence, you can make an argument that there needs to be some continuity and there needs to be some consistency in leadership and policy. The Chinese have said that they want to begin to focus more on deepening the reform effort and we'll see if they're going to follow through on that or not but if they do then you would want someone to be in control who can see this thing through for a while. 

Now, all that said, from an institutionalization point of view, these term limits were put in place to assure predictability and hence a stable leadership transition.  They were put in place by Deng Xiaoping precisely to avoid a repetition of the leadership struggles that marked the Mao Zedong period of one-man rule. In other words, eliminating the term limits can really undermine political stability over the longer-term and that's the danger that I think this presents for China. The implications of that for the outside world is also kind of difficult to ascertain but it could end up being negative in some respects.  In particular, Xi might eventually decide that in order to stay in office during a tumultuous period, he might attempt to shore up his legitimacy and support by becoming more assertive in foreign policy, playing to ultra-nationalist sentiments within the Chinese populace.  That might Xserve Xi’s interests, but it would not be good for China’s external relations.

In regards to the recent Trump-tariff plan, how will the duties of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum affect America’s ties with two of its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea?

The biggest impact of Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum would not be on China but on major allies such as Canada, Japan, and South Korea. There's been talk of exemptions for such nations, but if this does not occur, there will likely be retaliatory tariffs on the part of the allies. And this will undermine our ability to work with the allies in other areas. So, such an action will be done for very dubious economic and even dubious political reasons. Very few people (and almost no serious economists) believe, like Trump’s economic advisor Peter Navarro, that a blanket tariff will actually provide some benefits for the U.S.  There are many state governors and mayors who resist tariffs very strongly because they could cause obstacles between the U.S. and its allies, many of whom trade individually on the local level with US companies. 

Of course Trump doesn't even think about all this. He doesn't understand that the relationship is far more complex than a question of putting pressure on others to create jobs for American workers. American workers and companies receive enormous benefits from trading with China, Japan, South Korea ad other Asian states.  The best that can happen is that Trump’s threat to levy tariffs on the Chinese leads to some type of negotiated settlement that possibly produces limited benefits for the U.S., which leads Trump to claim a victory.  The worst outcome is that Trump tries to levy tariffs that are exempted from the major allies but still apply to the Chinese and the Chinese then retaliate, thereby creating a trade war that heavily damages both economies and the larger global economic environment.   Regardless of the outcome, Trump’s focus on the so-called trade deficit problem via the threat of punitive tariffs is preventing the U.S. from focusing on the real economic issues. Even someone who knows little about economic policy can see that the issue of trade imbalance on a bilateral basis is virtually meaningless in terms of economic health as it's marginally influential on issues such as employment. It's almost totally not important in terms of overall economic dynamism. A bilateral trade surplus is not necessarily good, and a deficit is not necessarily bad.  Trump doesn't know anything about this. He just knows what he hears from Fox News, Breitbart, and extremists like Navarro.

After more than one year in office, do you see a clear and coherent Asian strategy emerging from the Trump administration?

Well there could be. There could be a clear and coherent strategy, eventually, but it could be a very bad one. The Trump Administration has passed and enunciated the national security strategy and the national defense strategy.  These documents present our relationship with China as an adversarial zero-sum contest between two concepts of world order, where we win they lose, they win we lose.  No U.S. administration since the beginning of our relationship with China has ever been so one-dimensional – cartoonish really – about U.S.-China relations.  And if they try to make good on such concepts and get into a trade war, we will have moved a good way toward re-creating a Cold War with China, something that will benefit absolutely no one.  So I hope that this mindset won’t be turned into real policy.  I would rather see the current chaos than I would see a clear and coherent Asia strategy that is based upon those documents. I don't think we're going to see something like that though. We will see a continuation of the current unrest. It could get worse before it gets better because we could indeed get into a trade war with the Chinese and get involved in a shooting war with the North Koreans. Trump is quite capable of precipitating these acts. The most we want to have out of this administration is to do less damage than it otherwise is doing. So it's much more of avoiding a worst case situation than pursuing a good strategy because I frankly don't think they're very capable of implementing a good strategy.

Jenifer Hanki CMC '20Student Journalist

VOA. U.S. President Donald Trump Smiles with Other Leaders, including Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as They Cross Their Arms for the Traditional “ASEAN Handshake” in the Opening Ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 13, 2017. 2017. Manila.


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