Trump, China, and the Future of U.S. Interests in the Asia-Pacific Region

December 9, 2016
Westad Q&A
Professor Arne Westad discusses what Donald Trump's election means for Asia.

The Ash Center sat down with Professor Arne Westad, the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations at HKS to discuss what Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House means for U.S. relations in Asia and how the region’s leaders are reacting to his election.


During the campaign, Trump sent very mixed signals regarding his intentions towards the Asia-Pacific region.  He suggested at various times that the United States would reconsider its defense umbrella in South Korea and Japan, pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, but also more aggressively confront China. How have leaders in the region been reacting to Trump’s election and possible policy moves he may make in Asia?

Just like elsewhere, there is a lot of uncertainty in Asia about what Trump intends to do.  Those who are most concerned are America’s traditional friends and allies, who fear that he will do less to help them deal with the consequences of China’s rise than what previous US presidents have done.  But Chinese leaders are also worried, especially about restrictions on US-China trade and investment.  China is still dependent on its exports in order to secure future economic growth.  This concern is likely to hold back China’s willingness to deal with Trump, even if some leaders in Beijing see long-term opportunities for their country in extending its predominance within the region if the new US president actually does draw back from the US alliance system.


Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen broke with decades of established diplomatic protocol with China.  Is this a harbinger of an aggressive new policy vis a vis Beijing or perhaps a sign of the nascent Trump Administration’s naiveté when it comes to international diplomacy?

I am not so sure naiveté caused this episode.  It is likely that Trump did it to show his base at home that he would be alert to Taiwan’s concerns.  It is also possible that he was thinking that he could somehow bring the Taiwan card into play so that he could deal more effectively with China on other issues. Whatever the reason, the call was a mistake.  Speaking directly with Taiwan’s president will not make it easier to deal with China, quite the opposite.

How is Beijing likely to respond to the Wen call?

Very negatively, although it is in China’s interest as well to gloss over this initial episode.  Any repeat activism on Taiwan could really damage Sino-American relations, though.


Trump has made it very clear that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from TPP.  What is the likely political ramification of a US withdrawal in the region? Will it ultimately strengthen Beijing’s hand?

It certainly has the potential for strengthening Beijing’s position.  The big question, I think, is whether China is willing and able to come up with a broad, inclusive free trade agreement for the eastern Asian region to make up for TPP.  If it does so, it has a historic opportunity for redirecting flows of trade and investment to China’s advantage.  But such a move would require a China that is much more capable of taking the real interest of other countries into consideration than most of what we have seen from Xi Jinping so far.  The more likely scenario is that the existing trade patterns will continue, including the major role the United States plays both as a market and as an investor in Asia.  But a big opportunity for increasing the US role in Asia will have been lost if Trump destroys TPP.

The announcement that Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad, long a sympathetic figure towards China, will be nominated as ambassador to Beijing seems at odd with Trump’s more bellicose rhetoric during the campaign.  Is this a message that Trump intends to a more constructive relationship with President Xi?

Governor Branstad of Iowa was presumably chosen because he supported Trump in the general election campaign and because has met a number of Chinese leaders on trade missions.  The strange thing is that Branstad is a strong supporter of trade with China, not surprisingly, perhaps, since his state is dependent on that trade.  But as Trump’s ambassador he will be the messenger of tougher conditions for China’s trade with the United States, a position which may have strongly negative implications for his home state.

Do you think Trump is likely to follow through with his campaign threats to raise certain import tariffs on Chinese goods? If so, do you think there is a possibly likelihood of a resultant trade war between Beijing and Washington? 

There definitely is, if Trump follows through on these threats.  As president he can do so, even though most new tariffs would also need the approval of Congress.  If the United States imposes such tariffs, China would be certain to retaliate.  A lot of Americans would be very unhappy: Think about farmers in Iowa who have done well from exporting corn and soybean to China.  But worse: The United States would be in violation of WTO rules, and may have to withdraw from the organization in order to carry out Trump’s policies.  If so, a cornerstone of US post-Cold War policies will be gone, and US influence in the world further reduced.


What will become of Obama’s pivot to Asia in the age of Trump?

The so-called ‘pivot' was always of limited significance to the region because it was so unclear what it actually consisted of.  What is clear, however, is that no US president can avoid dealing with the central global transformation of our time, which is the transfer of wealth and power from West to East.  This is a process that has now been underway for almost a generation, and the election of Trump as president will not change it.  So my guess is that Trump as president will come to spend more time on Asia than on any other continent; not only on China, but on the rest of the region as well.