In February, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked how he would deal with the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea. His answer? Have the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, killed.
“I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly,” Trump told CBS. Pressed about whether he was implying assassination, Trump doubled down. “Well, you know, I’ve heard of worse things,” he said.
Fast forward three months, and Trump had reversed course, saying he’d like to hold direct negotiations with the young North Korean leader. Then he sweetened the deal, inviting Kim to the U.S. for talks. “I’ll speak to anybody,” he said.
In the span of four months, Trump’s North Korea strategy had swung from possibly assassinating a key U.S. foe to inviting him to visit.
As President Barack Obama heads to Asia this week for what is likely his last official trip to the region, many are wondering: What does the future hold for the U.S. approach to Asia?
While Trump seems to offer a radical upheaval, the approach of his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, is more traditional. During her time as secretary of state, Clinton strengthened traditional U.S. alliances and oversaw Obama’s economic and military rebalance toward Asia, now in its sixth year.
But even though Clinton’s views on Asia provide a sharp contrast to those of Trump, there are reasons to believe her approach to the region would differ from Obama’s in several respects. Most notably, differences emerge in Clinton’s newfound opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal — a key part of the so-called Asia “pivot” — as well as her tendency to be more critical of China.
Trump’s foreign policy views in general consist of an unpredictable blend of isolationism and aggression. As his comments on North Korea suggest, nowhere is this volatility more evident than in his statements on Asia.
He regularly downplays the strategic importance of U.S. alliances in Asia, saying the U.S. “gets nothing” in return for the troop deployments there, a statement widely mocked by foreign policy experts.
Trump at times expresses glee at the possibility of a U.S. pullout from Asia. Commenting in April on the possibility of a war between Japan and North Korea, Trump remarked: “Good luck, folks. Enjoy yourself.”
Like Clinton, Trump is opposed to the TPP and other free trade deals that he says ship U.S. jobs overseas. But Trump, whose own clothing line includes many products made in China, has criticized the TPP in even sharper terms, saying it amounts to a “rape” of U.S. workers.
Instead of competing with China via free trade deals, as has been the unstated U.S. strategy, Trump has his own recipe for competing with the Asian giant: slam a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese imports to the U.S. and declare Beijing a currency manipulator.
Trump adviser: It’s deal-making
But even though his approach to Asia sometimes seems haphazard, Trump has a coherent policy for the region, insists Peter Navarro, an economics professor and China specialist advising the Republican nominee.
Navarro is perhaps best known for his 2011 book Death by China, which was later made into a documentary. In the film’s most famous scene, an assault-style knife, wrapped in a yuan note and stamped with the words “MADE IN CHINA,” plunges into the heart of the U.S. as blood oozes out.
In an interview with VOA, Navarro said Trump’s Asia strategy takes a cue from former President Theodore Roosevelt. “Talk softly but carry a big stick,” Navarro said. “His mission is to rebuild the economy, rebuild the military — not directly confront China.”
But how is threatening to assassinate foreign leaders consistent with “speaking softly?” For Navarro, comments like that should be seen as strategic negotiating strategies rather than serious policy proposals.
“The thing that’s important to understand in terms of the approach of a Trump administration is the art of the deal,” he said, referring to Trump’s 1987 New York Times bestselling book. “When he says, for example, ‘I will slap a 45 percent tariff on China if they don’t stop cheating,’ his goal is not to slap a tariff on, it’s to get China to stop cheating.”
National security establishment skeptical
Trump’s Asia proposals have won over few in the foreign policy community.
That’s because Trump’s positions on Asia are contradictory, reflect an insufficient understanding of history and could result in the U.S. ceding regional influence to China, says Dennis Wilder, former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia.
“It leaves me speechless,” said Wilder, now a professor at Georgetown University. “The idea that somehow we do not benefit from our forward deployed presence in East Asia, whether it’s in Japan or South Korea or Singapore or the Philippines, is to not understand East Asia. It’s one of the most peaceful areas of the world today, and one of the great trading partners of the United States.”
If Trump were to follow through on some of his seemingly isolationist Asia proposals, the Chinese “would be delighted” and would more than likely try to fill the void, Wilder says.
Even if Trump were unable to implement his ideas, his tough negotiating posture alone risks driving U.S. allies to consider alternatives, according to Wilder.
Wilder isn’t officially endorsing Clinton or Trump, saying it sets a bad precedent for recently retired military and intelligence officials to take sides in U.S. politics. But some of his colleagues are doing just that.
Shut out of NatSec community?
A group of eight Republican Asia advisers last month signed an open letter not only opposing Trump, but endorsing Clinton.
A similar letter, signed by 50 other prominent Republican national security experts, also eviscerated Trump, saying he’d be “the most reckless president in American history.”
Taken together, the letters raise the possibility of Trump eventually being shut out of the national security community if he doesn’t become more restrained, says Mitchell Shivers, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.
“I question whether he’ll be able to attract the needed foreign policy and national security experts sufficient to run our government and protect our nation,” Shivers told VOA.
But Shivers holds out hope that Trump can shift to a more restrained stance.
If recent weeks are any indication, there’s not much hope Trump will change. Despite promising throughout the campaign that he will pivot to a more “presidential” demeanor, Trump has continued his controversial rhetoric.
It’s something that Navarro, Trump’s own adviser, indirectly acknowledges may not change. Trump, he insists, is just representative of a “different America for the world to have to adjust to.”