What Should the Trump Administration Do in Asia? 11 Experts Weigh In

Experts discuss what President Trump should do in Asia. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

President Trump has focused much of his first week in office on domestic policy. But the 45th president must soon turn to a large and complex set of foreign policy problems, including several centered around Asia: trade, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the world's most important bilateral relationship, with China.

In order to tease out the most pressing Asia policy challenges for the new administration, Asia Society assembled an extraordinary panel of experts from across the military, academia, media, and private sector and asked them to provide advice to the president. Josette Sheeran, Asia Society President and CEO, and Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, served as moderators.

Here were the panelists:

  • Hassan Abbas, professor of International Security Studies and chair of the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at National Defense University, and Carnegie Fellow at New America  
  • Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, assistant district attorney in New York City and author of Thieves of Baghdad.
  • Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies, and director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies 
  • Gheewhan Kim, consul general of the Republic of Korea in New York
  • Evan Medeiros, managing director for Eurasia Group's coverage of the Asia-Pacific.
  • Nazee Moinian, PhD candidate at St. Andrews University in Scotland and most recently a member of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisory group on Iran.
  • Malcolm Nance, executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideologies.
  • Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society.
  • Paul Sheard, executive vice president and chief economist at Standard & Poor's Global.
  • Lulu Wang, founder and chief executive officer of Tupelo Capital Management, and trustee of the Asia Society.
  • Lally Weymouth, senior associate editor at the Washington Post.

The format was simple. Each panelist began with a 60-second "elevator pitch" to President Trump on a topic of their choice and then participated in an in-depth question and answer session centered around five broad topics: the U.S.-China relationship, trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), terrorism, Iran, and North Korea. At the conclusion of each topic, Sheeran polled the audience to gauge their opinion of what the new president should do.

Despite the breadth of topics presented in the discussion, some common themes emerged. Many of the panelists urged President Trump to engage with, rather than retreat from, the region, focus on nuclear diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, and maintain American involvement in the Asia-Pacific economy through international trade.

Here's a taste of what the panelists said:

On U.S.-China Relations and the Surrounding Region

Medeiros: "Confrontation with China is not a strategy for China. Nobody wants to have to choose between the U.S. and China."

Schell: "Engagement has been our policy for decades. If we aren’t able to engage, what is our policy? And that’s a question that hasn’t been answered."

Kennedy: "We have to find a way to dial up the temperature a little bit, but show that this pressure isn't an end to itself. The U.S. can cohabitate and get along fine with a powerful China. It's not whether or not we use confrontation, it's how we signal the end goal with China."

Schell: "The Philippines has run off with China, and the South Korean government is in a state of disassembly. And so we’re left with Japan. At the same time, we’re finding individual countries running into political disaggregation and we’re seeing alliances and networks running into disaggregation. Look at the EU. Look at Brexit. We’re looking at a new very fractured, feudal view of the world, which I find quite alarming."

Medeiros: "The regional reaction is largely going to fall into two buckets: One is resilience, one is diversification. When it comes to allies like Australia, Japan, and South Korea, nobody is going to break off alliances in the United States. What you'll begin to see is a focus on their own domestic economic capabilities, their own domestic defense capabilities, and then begin to diversify security and economic partners so there's not such an exclusive alliance on the United States and U.S. institutions in the region.

Wang: "If I were in an elevator with President Trump, I'd make sure we'd have President Xi [Jinping] with us. And if we had both together, I'd tell them that the only way to any peace or collaboration is to give each other face."

On Trade and TPP

Weymouth: "By killing TPP, Trump sent a disturbing signal: The U.S. is withdrawing from Asia. In the end, if this persists, China will be the winner."

Sheard: "We've had Pax America for the last 60 years, we've had the U.S. be the global policeman, we've had the U.S. be the consumer of last resort opening up its markets to the world, and giving emerging and transitional economies access to this giant domestic market, and not always demanding, in exchange, reciprocity. And what I hear from the Trump administration is that those days are gone, and now everything has to be on an equal playing field — reciprocity."

Medeiros: "Come up with a real, serious alternative to TPP. If you don't like the TPP, fine. Change it, modify it, call it the Trump Pacific Partnership — who cares? But the region wants a multilateral solution, one that will bring about structural change."

On Terrorism and the Islamic State

Nance: "Islam has nothing to do with ISIS and al Qaeda. Those are religious cults that have corrupted Islam.”

Nance: "ISIS is almost physically defeated in Iraq and Syria — they have maybe one year left before they're totally eradicated from the mainland of the Middle East. In Egypt, they’re being whittled down. In Libya, we just decimated the last remaining stronghold of ISIS with a B-2 Bomber attack on President Obama's last night. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is actually reporting to us where ISIS base camps are."

Malcolm Nance discusses U.S. advancements in counterterrorism and why he's concerned President Trump's foreign policy will represent a setback. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

Bogdanos: "If you want to say that we'll eliminate terrorism by eliminating poverty, you won't. It's simply one of the causes. Far too many of those engaging in horrible acts are upper middle class, well-educated people from Western democracies. So that's not the answer." 

Abbas: "We've come to a nuanced understanding about counterterrorism, which is based on building partnerships with progressive elements within Muslim societies. So don't try to reinvent the wheel. Build on what we've already accomplished."

On Iran

Moinian: "We have much more in common with Iran than we have differences. We can use Iran to fight ISIS, to fight terrorism, and to safeguard to the Persian Gulf. President Trump should reach out to civil society and build a bridge so that he can empower them and build a future."

Moinian: "Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement means calibrated, introspective, and very deliberate steps to bring a proud and civilized nation back into the fold."

Nance: "If President Trump rips up the Iranian nuclear deal, that gives Iran free reign to go back to the 10-month breakout period they had from the 15-year period we negotiated. That means Iran could go back and try to make a bomb in the next year or two."

On North Korea

Rudd: "The Iranian nuclear program is just a baby compared to the North Korean program."

Kim: "All of the United Nations Security Council members have agreed to sanctions for North Korea, but we need to go much further. Strategic patience may have been good diplomacy, but it cannot denuclearize the country."

Medeiros: "One of the poorly understood aspects of the North Korean problem is that there are tools, secondary sanctions, that could really squeeze the Kim regime. The tricky part is that it'd require a high degree of compliance from China, and it'd require China to feel some pain. And it'd require China to stomach the fact that there'd be more instability on their North Korean border."

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.