President Donald Trump has hinted at a more muscular US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. In tweets and speeches since the election, he has adopted a hard-line on China’s island-building in the South China Sea, vowed to prevent North Korea from acquiring a functional nuclear missile, condemned Beijing over its unfair trade practices, and raised the prospect of deeper US-Taiwan relations.

His Asia team is shaping up to reflect Trump’s hawkish stance towards China on trade and security. But it is also likely to be an eclectic group whose perspectives on other Asia policy issues differ both internally and with figures on the national security cabinet. Australia will have to prepare for a more turbulent US-China relationship, as well as greater uncertainty in Washington’s Asia policy.

What’s the Asia team?

A president’s Asia team refers to the constellation of officials appointed to key positions in the US foreign policy bureaucracy responsible for designing and coordinating Asia policy. This loose grouping of approximately a dozen individuals cuts across agencies and is not organised in a hierarchical way. It revolves around three appointments:

  • Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council (NSC): responsible, under the National Security Advisor, for coordinating interagency implementation of security policy in Indo-Pacific Asia, and developing strategic options and advice for the president.1
  • Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs: the leading State Department official for foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific — including major bilateral relationships, US alliances, regional organisations, and South China Sea policy — responsible for advising the department’s senior leadership and formulating policy with them.
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs: the leading Pentagon official for security and defence policy in the Indo-Pacific — including force posture, planning, and cooperation with military partners — responsible for advising its senior leadership, and developing and implementing regional defence policy.

Trade officials are not generally considered part of the Asia team. But given Trump’s focus on improving the terms of US trade relationships, they will have an outsized impact on this administration’s Asia policy, particularly towards China. Two appointments will be influential:

  • United States Trade Representative (USTR): responsible for leading negotiations on trade agreements and disputes with foreign governments, representing the US in global trade organisations, and providing advice to the president on trade issues such as what positions Washington should adopt on trade deals.
  • Director of the National Trade Council: a new position and office announced by Trump that will “advise the president on innovative strategies in trade negotiations” and “coordinate with other agencies” on trade initiatives, such as the “Buy America, Hire America” program.2

As in past administrations, the individuals occupying these positions will represent different and, at times, competing inputs into Asia policy. The balance of influence across these roles will vary according to who is appointed and the presidential priorities of the moment.3

Trump’s Asia team in the making

Reflecting President Trump’s prioritisation of economic issues over security policy in Asia, trade nominees have led the way on Asia team appointments. Vocal protectionist and China critic Robert Lighthizer will become the United States Trade Representative, and is poised to advance Trump’s “America first” trade policy in the Asia-Pacific. As a deputy USTR in the Ronald Regan Administration, Lighthizer imposed tough trade restrictions on countries, like Japan, for dumping in US markets; and has since represented US firms in their effort to minimise foreign competition.4 Lighthizer’s condemnation of Republicans in 2008 for “embrac[ing] unbridled free trade… no matter how many jobs are lost, [or] how high the trade deficit rises” aligns with Trump’s agenda to bring back jobs by ending bad deals.5 Like Trump, Lighthizer sees “Chinese mercantilism” and the relocation of US firms to China as the main driver of the United States’ trade imbalance. He advocates “aggressive trade measures” to combat the deficit, including tariffs and a possible abrogation of US commitments under the World Trade Organisation.6