While the Asia-Pacific does not rank highly in US President Donald Trump’s worldview, his administration looks to be adopting a more muscular security policy in the region than that of his predecessor. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and hostility towards allies Japan and Korea sparked regional concerns about US retrenchment. But Trump is not shaping up to be an isolationist in Asia. In fact, he may prove to be more forcefully engaged than many US allies and partners will like.
Since the election, Trump has outlined hard line positions on China, Taiwan, and North Korea, raising the spectre of greater instability in the region. Although Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have moderated his more extreme pronouncements, the region can still expect a harder and more self-interested Asia policy from the United States.
Three main elements are likely to define Trump’s approach to Asia. First, a confrontational attitude to China on most bilateral issues. Second, a supportive but transactional stance on US allies in Asia. And third, a military first approach to the “rebalance to Asia” that attaches little importance to engaging Southeast Asia or to the liberal internationalist goals of Barack Obama’s initiative. These shifts in US Asia policy will likely produce more volatile relations in the Asia-Pacific — not just between competitors like the United States and China, but potentially between Washington and its allies and partners as well.
Australia needs to adopt a more active foreign and security policy in Asia to manage the destabilising shifts that Trump’s administration could produce. This will require careful input into US-China relations, collaboration with like-minded Asian allies and partners, and greater Australian leadership in Southeast Asia.