Podcast Transcript for 'Donald Trump and Asia'

Donald Trump Asia
Donald Trump waits to speak at a National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon in Washington, DC, on May 27, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

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Donald Trump: I want to tell the world community that while we'll always put America's interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone — all people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility. Partnership, not conflict… We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us. We’ll have great relationships, we expect to have great relationships, great, great relationships.

Eric Fish: That’s Donald Trump in November just after being elected the 45th president of the United States. For many leaders around the world, his remarks gave some reassurance. Throughout his campaign, he had taken an unusually combative stance with some countries and cast doubt on long-standing alliances with others. But whatever reassurance Trump’s victory speech gave was fleeting … at least for some leaders in the Asia Pacific. It wasn’t long before he was once again upending decades of precedent and putting the continuity of American policy in the region into question.

So what, if anything, can we glean about how Trump will approach American policy in Asia. And what should he be doing?

Trump: I don't know why we have to be bound by the One China policy.

Yun Sun: On China, the most important issue is to set the right tone and set the right boundary.

Trump: We go to Japan, we go to these countries, and we make better deals, but you have to be prepared to walk. It's possible they'll have to defend themselves.

Nicholas Burns: Mr. President, our alliances are the foundation stone of American power.

Trump: I am going to issue a notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ashley Tellis: The president-elect will have to make a strategic choice about whether he wants to make life easy for himself or more difficult.

Joe Hockey: There can't be any ambiguity about what you believe in if you are the world's superpower.

Fish: Today we’ll hear from analysts and ambassadors on what challenges Trump will face in Asia, and how he might deal with them. I’m Eric Fish and this is the Asia Society Podcast

Fish: Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla in Asia that Trump had plenty to say about on the campaign trail.

Trump: China, China, China, China, China, China, China, China, China.

Fish: Regardless of who won the election, the next president was bound to inherit a deteriorating U.S.-China relationship. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has been taking a more assertive foreign policy posture and a tougher tone with the United States in particular. This comes amid domestic worries of economic restructuring and a host of other issues China’s leaders worry could cause instability. Then on top of that, in late 2017, the Communist Party will undergo its once per five-year turnover of top leadership positions.

Evan Medieros: 2017 is going to be an exceptionally important year for China because of the leadership transition. Politics is going to move to the forefront of Chinese economic policy, foreign policy, and of course, it'll have an effect on the U.S.-China relationship.

Fish: That’s Evan Medieros, former special assistant to President [Barack] Obama and senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, speaking at an Asia Society event in New York.

Medieros: So you plug into that Donald Trump. What does it produce? Absolutely it produces volatility in the U.S.-China relationship.

Fish: Indeed, right out of the gate after the election, Trump started dramatically shaking things up in the U.S.-China relationship when he took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — something no president or president-elect had done in four decades. The island of Taiwan broke away from mainland China after the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 and has since been self-governing. But it never formally declared independence and is still claimed — quite insistently — by China.

In 1992, the two sides reached a consensus that there is only one China, though each side has its own definition of what that means. The United States — wanting stability in the region — has supported this "One China" consensus and has been careful not to make any moves that appear to endorse Taiwan independence. People in Trump’s transition team initially played down the call as no more than a friendly expression of congratulation. Many people in Taiwan welcomed it, feeling it showed American commitment to the vulnerable democracy. But days later, Trump went on Fox News and suddenly was questioning nearly every pillar of the U.S.-China relationship.

Trump: I fully understand the One China Policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a One China Policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade. I mean look, we're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them, with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea which they shouldn't be doing, and frankly with not helping us at all with North Korea. You have North Korea, you have nuclear weapons and China could solve that problem and they’re not helping us at all. So I don’t want China dictating to me.

Fish: The implication appeared to be that support for Taiwan could be used as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from China on other issues. Evan Medieros noted that the Chinese government had been measured in its initial response to the call and gave Trump openings to play down its significance. But not only did he double down.

Medieros: He tripled down by calling into question something that Henry Kissinger negotiated and eight presidents over the last 35-to-40 years have seen fit to reinforce: the One China Policy, which I think has served as a useful bedrock stabilizing influence in the U.S.-China relationship. In the Obama administration we were able to do a lot with Taiwan. I'm very proud of the work that we did to sort of what we call reconceptualized and re-institutionalized the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. And we did all of that at the same time as managing a relatively stable U.S.-China relationship. We disagreed on important issues, but we also elicited meaningful cooperation from the Chinese. It's never enough, it's always frustrating for Americans. The question is, by calling into question the One China Policy, is he generating leverage, or is he so undermining the credibility of the next administration that the Chinese are really not even going to be interested in dealing with Trump and his team going forward?

Fish: For decades, the U.S. has followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan — ambiguity as to whether it would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an invasion by mainland China. Though there have been periodic flare-ups, the strategy has appeared to work, more-or-less, for decades. But Trump’s call and subsequent remarks suggested that a radical alteration of that approach might be on the table.

Syaru Shirley Lin: I think that if Trump is accepting the call simply as a way to balance China, then that would be very bad news for Taiwan — that in fact, Taiwan is simply a means to an end.

Fish: That’s Chinese University of Hong Kong Professor Shirley Lin, who recently published a book called Taiwan’s China Dilemma.

Lin: But there are many advisors close to Trump who are sympathetic to Taiwan's plight and I think that protecting, supporting a vibrant democracy and hoping that there will be a peaceful solution to the issue across the strait should be something that Americans stand for because if a vibrant democracy cannot continue simply because of economic and military sanctions, then this will fit into the trend of a decreasing number of liberal democracies and I think this is what America as a leader has to focus on. But we don't really know if Trump is wedded to any kind of ideological forces and whether this is something that is one-off we shall see.

Fish: As Trump mentioned in his Fox News appearance, another area of contention he’ll have to deal with is the South China Sea. There, China asserts vast territorial claims that conflict with those of several countries in Southeast Asia. The United States holds that China’s claims violate freedom of navigation in the region, so its navy has been running sea and air patrols to counter China’s military buildup and construction on disputed islands. Some analysts fear this could be a recipe for a clash. Former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns says Trump will need to work closely — and carefully — with Xi Jinping on the issue.

Burns: The Chinese are going to be a presence there forever. On the other hand we have to continue with freedom of navigation exercises. … But we want to create with you Mr. President some kind of process, multilateral. You can even decide what that is, where the interests of the other five claimants to the Spratly and Paracel Islands can be discussed and debated, and even if that process goes on for five-to-10 years, if there's a process, it allows us to lower the temperature and reduce the probability of some sort of naval or air accident among all the competing forces there. So I think to help China, what you often want to do in negotiations with a difficult adversary, help them. Create exit doors for them, help them in this context save face so that the Chinese who have profound interests in this area, understand we're not trying to threaten those interests, we’re just trying to lower the probability of a conflict while maintaining our own interest in a liberal trading regime in Southeast Asia.

Fish: Complicating Trump’s ability to work with China on this or any issue though is the fact that the country served as his go-to punching bag on the campaign trail, blamed constantly for taking American jobs through unfair trade practices. This yielded some dramatic pledges.

Trump: I’m going to instruct my treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator. Any country that devalues their currency in order to take unfair advantage of the United States, which is many countries, will be met with sharply. And that includes tariffs and taxes.

Fish: Trump’s argument goes like this: China pushes down the value of its currency, the renminbi, in order to make its goods artificially cheap, which boosts its manufacturing sector at the expense of America’s. Trump has threatened to slap a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese goods if the country doesn’t shape up. The problem is, China is not devaluing its currency and it hasn’t been for years. In fact, because of slowing investment into the country and capital flight out of it, the currency has been falling naturally. China has actually been burning through reserves trying to prop up the renminbi’s value. So it may be impossible for it to appease Trump on this point even if it wanted to. Nicholas Burns says though that for Donald Trump, the tariff threat may just be the start of an effort to make a deal.

Burns: He wrote Art of the Deal. What did he say in Art of the Deal? You start with your maximal position. A lot of people think his threat of a 45 percent surtax on Chinese imports is just an opening negotiating position. He doesn't really mean to do that.

Fish: Trump has thrown this number around in conjunction with other issues, suggesting that, like Taiwan, it too could somehow be used as a bargaining chip. One such issue is perhaps the most volatile that he’ll have to deal with in Asia: North Korea and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Here are some remarks he made at a Republican debate last year.

Trump: China, they don’t like to tell us, but they have total control, just about, of North Korea. They can solve the problem of North Korea if they wanted to. But they taunt us. They say well we don’t really have control. Without China, North Korea doesn’t even eat. China is ripping us on trade, they’re devaluing their currency, and they’re killing our companies.

Fish: He went on to suggest that the 45 percent tariff could be used as leverage to get China to deal with North Korea. Specific measures aside, putting pressure on China is an approach advocated by many analysts. Here’s Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center who focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Sun: North Korea is on a very rapid track to develop real ability to deliver nuclear weapons to mainland United States and the Chinese need to be made to understand that this is an issue the United States cannot just let stay there. But then we have to figure out, what do we see as realistic in terms of our negotiation or our approach toward North Korea. If the military option is not an option, at least not an immediate option, then do we consider negotiation and dialogue with North Koreans without denuclearization as the ultimate goal as feasible. Are we willing to talk to them about a moratorium of their nuclear program in exchange for dialogue about a peace mechanism or peace treaty. Those are the tough questions.

Fish: At one point, Trump expressed an unusual willingness for dialogue with North Korea at the highest level, saying he’d be willing to chat with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over hamburgers in the United States. But this sentiment was overshadowed in early January when Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s address that North Korea was close to testing a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States. Trump, as he often does, responded on Twitter, saying, “It won’t happen!” It’s impossible to know just what he meant in that tweet. A pre-emptive attack? More sanctions? His team wouldn’t say. Nuclear armament and the possibility of war are especially worrying for North Korea’s adversarial neighbors, South Korea and Japan. And adding to these fears are comments Trump has made several times regarding the American security alliance with both countries. Here he is on Fox News last April.

Trump: I used Japan as an example: they are sending us cars by the millions, they're making a fortune off, I mean like everybody else, who doesn't, everyone makes a fortune because we have the worst trade deals ever negotiated ever in the world, ok. So we go to Japan, we go to the others also, but we go to Japan and say listen, you gotta pay more. We want to defend you, I don't really want them to have nukes, I don’t want them to defend themselves, but at some point we can't continue to do this, we can't continue. We have $19 trillion in debt, because of the horrible budget that was just approved, it’s going to be $21 trillion very soon. We go to Japan we go to these countries and we make better deals, but you have to be prepared to walk. It's possible they'll have to defend themselves, but we cannot spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on defending all of these countries that have plenty of money to defend themselves.

Fish: To be clear, Trump was suggesting that the U.S. go to allies that it’s treaty-bound to defend — including Japan and South Korea — and threaten to pull out of the arrangements if they don’t pay more…even if this results in those nations developing their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves. This, of course, would represent a radical shake-up of the world security landscape that’s been in place since World War II.

Ahn Ho-young: If you just put this 50 years of our common experiences against 5,000 years of human history, this uniqueness of this peace, stability, and prosperity really stands out.

Fish: That’s South Korean Ambassador to the United States Ahn Ho-young. He was speaking at an Asia Society event in Washington D.C.

Ahn: And how was it possible? I think it is possible because of the architecture we built together for security, for information economy, and therefore all those institutions like IMF, WTO, etc. But at the same time let just us think about who was behind all this architecture and institutions — it was you, the United States of America.

Fish: Ashley Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace who’s held senior State Department and National Security Council posts related to South Asia. He says that the U.S. defense of this international order isn’t just an act of charity. Here he is at an Asia Society event in New York.

Tellis: I think the president-elect will have to make a strategic choice about whether he wants to make life easy for himself or more difficult. And that essentially boils down to a fundamental question about whether the United States is prepared to make the investments necessary to protect the liberal international order, which we created since World War II. And I think I would want him to understand that protecting this order is of fundamental importance to American national interest and that we did not build and we do not sustain this order simply as a favor to others. We do this first and foremost because it is in our own self-interest. And he can choose to gut the order either through negligence or through acts of will, but that's not going to put him in a position where his own life is going to be easier, if that's what he really wants. So a real renewal of the long-standing American commitment to preserve a rule-based regime in the areas of interstate behavior, in the areas of trade, in the areas of protecting security in the commons, I think are fundamental.

Fish: Trade was one of Trump’s most frequent talking points during the campaign. He bashed several global trade deals that he claimed have been detrimental to American workers. Regarding Asia, the most significant such deal has yet to be approved by congress: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. This is an agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries involving a complex set of tariff reductions and dispute settlement mechanisms, among many other clauses. Most economists agree that the deal would boost overall GDP growth, incomes, and the number of jobs in the United States. But like any trade agreement, there would be losers — particularly in the U.S. manufacturing sector. Trump has been very consistent on his feelings about the agreement. Here he is in a video he released after the election.

Trump: I am going to issue a notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a potential disaster for our country. Instead, we will negotiate fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.

Fish: Though Trump has been consistently against the deal, he’s occasionally had some curious rationale for it. Here he is at a Republican debate in late 2015.

Trump: The TPP is a horrible deal. It is a deal that will lead to nothing but trouble, it’s a deal that was designed for China to come in as they always do through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.

Fish: After Trump went on to harangue China for another two minutes, fellow candidate Rand Paul pointed out the major flaw in his reasoning to debate moderator Gerard Baker.

Rand Paul: Hey Gerard, you know we might want to point out China's not part of this deal. (True, that's true).

Fish: China has indeed been conspicuously absent from TPP, and in fact, analysts say that if the U.S. pulls out of TPP, then China will fill the vacuum with its own trade deals that would shut out the U.S. Here’s Nick Burns.

Burns: There's a strategic rationale for TPP well beyond the 1 to 2 percent rise in GDP that we might expect from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It's 40 percent of global GDP, it's 12 countries. Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe had to push very hard in the Japanese Diet to get the necessary compromises to go forward, and the rationale is strategic. If you want China to be the major dominant trade country in Asia and write the rules of trade, which will be disadvantageous for nearly everyone else in Asia, then kill the TPP. If you want liberal market economies to write the rules of trade for the next 30 years, then advance the TPP and find some face-saving way for yourself to go forward.

Fish: Now there are a few spots in Asia where U.S. relations might be more likely to improve under Trump, namely India and the Philippines, which also have leaders who came to power on nationalist populist platforms. Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in 2014 when his right-wing BJP party swept to power. Analysts have drawn parallels between his leadership style and Trump’s. Both men appealed to a downtrodden working class that’s been left behind by a shifting economy. Modi pushed his “Make in India” platform vowing to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector and make the country strong — a platform that resembles Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Both men are frequently accused of alienating immigrants and minority ethnic and religious groups — particularly Muslims; Trump by appealing to white nationalism and Modi by pushing Hindu nationalism. Trump was fairly popular among Indian Hindu nationalists — both in the United States and in India — for his tough talk on terrorism, plans to lock down the borders, and pledges to restrict Muslim immigration. In October, a Republican Hindu Coalition invited Trump to speak at an event titled Humanity United Against Terror. Here are some of his remarks.

Trump: India is the world’s largest democracy, an amazing statement and is a natural ally of the United States. Under a Trump administration, we are going to become even better friends. In fact, I’ll take the word "even" out because we’ll be best friends. No relationship will be more important to us. ...I look forward to working with Prime Minister Modi, who has been very energetic in reforming India’s bureaucracy. Great man.

Fish: Slightly undercutting the possibility of warmer U.S.-India ties though was a call Trump had after the election with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan — India’s neighbor and adversary. During the call, Trump reportedly called Sharif a “terrific guy” who is doing “amazing work” and he agreed to visit Pakistan. Like Trump’s call with the leader of Taiwan, this contradicted long-running protocol and suggested a shift in a complex relationship, which raised some worries India. Ashley Tellis said though that Modi will likely be anxious to work with Trump.

Tellis: I think they will get along famously. I think at least Mr. Modi would like to see President-elect Trump sooner rather than later. I hope President-elect Trump feels the same way. If that happens, I think it would be a very good first step.

Fish: Then there is the leader who has actually been called the Donald Trump of Asia: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte was elected in early 2016 as a very unconventional candidate, to put it mildly. He’s known for boasting about his womanizing, making remarks that belittle women, and cursing on formal occasions. Since becoming president, his most notorious policy has been a drug war that encourages the extrajudicial killing of dealers and addicts, which has led to thousands of vigilante murders. U.S.-Philippines relations have taken a bizarre turn under Duterte. President Obama had been critical of his lack of regard for human rights, so in September Duterte lobbed some very choice expletives at him. Then the following month during a trip to China, Duterte made a shock announcement in front of his Chinese hosts.

Duterte: America has lost me. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. I announce my separation from the United States.

Fish: The U.S. has long had a defense alliance with the Philippines and maintains military bases in the country. In recent years, as territorial conflicts between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea have heated up, this alliance has seemed all the more important. But Duterte has signaled that he doesn’t intend to press China over these conflicts, and his announcement that he’s realigned the Philippines with China’s ideological flow came as a major blow to the U.S.-Philippines relationship. But after Trump’s election, Duterte had another change of heart.

Duterte: I don’t want to quarrel anymore because Trump is now the president. We both curse, even with trivial matters, we curse. We are very similar in that way. Long live.

Fish: In early December, the two men spoke by phone and Trump reportedly expressed support for Duterte’s violent drug war, calling it, “the right way.” Nicholas Burns says that however disagreeable their commonalities may be, Trump and Duterte’s camaraderie might actually present an opening to affirm ties between the U.S. and Philippines ... which the U.S. views as important to countering China in the region.

Burns: So an initial Donald Trump opening to Duterte might allow Duterte to save face. He’s respected me, Mr. Trump has taken me seriously. And he might back off his threats to kick the American military out of the Philippines.

Fish: But whether Trump actually wants to maintain the American presence there, or anywhere else in Asia, is a very open question — one of many open questions as Trump takes the reins of power.

Hockey: There can't be any ambiguity about what you believe in if you are the world's superpower. You just can't be inconsistent, you can't be doubtful and that's what America has been over the past few months.

Fish: That’s Joe Hockey, the Australian Ambassador to the United States, speaking in Washington DC.

Hockey: America has to engage with Asia if it is going to be great. It has no choice. Two-thirds of the world's economic growth is coming out of Asia, so it has to engage. You've seen this massive transformation in the Asian economy that is driving not only global trade but importantly a transformation that is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over a few years. Now we're going to see at least 500 million people emerge in the middle class in Asia, an additional 500 million, over the next 10 years, and what that means is consumption. So if you want American manufacturing to turn into American exports, to turn into consumption in Asia, you need to engage with Asia and trade with Asia. There is no choice because the biggest consumer class in the history of humanity is going to appear in Asia over the next 15 years.

Fish: He added that in Trump’s drive to make America Great Again, he should stay committed to the values that have made it great in the eyes of much of the world.

Hockey: I’m going to go back a few thousand years and I ask people to think carefully. When was there ever a major global power that countries actually wanted to join with, rather to share the same values instead of that imperial power being an invader? Which country on Earth has become the global superpower over that period of time because of its values and others wanting to share those values? And the only country that I can identify, I stand to be corrected, is the United States where there's been this gravitational pull to the United States over the last 100 years because its values have been the values the rest of the world wants to share, not all countries but a lot of countries. Freedom of navigation, freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise, democracy, robust and broad and deep — all of those things combined with a whole lot of other values have been the very fundamental basis upon which America has become great.

Fish: Thanks for listening, if you want to hear more about what we talked about in today’s episode you can check out some of our past podcasts that look deeper at China’s economy and Chinese president Xi Jinping, as well as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Taiwan’s precarious political situation. To check those out you can go to asiasociety.org/podcast or subscribe on iTunes. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @AsiaSociety. Our music is by Thiri Maung Maung and his ensemble Shwe Man Thabin Zapway. They were performing live at Asia Society New York as part of a season of Myanmar. I’m Eric Fish and we’ll see you next time on the Asia Society podcast.

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