Trump, Not Biden, Wrecked American Power in the Pacific
The damage done to U.S. standing in Asia will take decades to repair.
A string of recent pieces have suggested that America’s friends in Asia have grown used to President Donald Trump’s tough-love approach and that, perhaps counterintuitively, Vice President Joe Biden has a credibility problem in the region. Biden, they intimate, is too closely associated with the policies of the Obama era, which no longer fit today’s security environment. As such, regional nations expect that Biden would mount inadequate resistance to Chinese expansionism and instead introduce an Obama 2.0 Asia policy.
This argument is wrong. It’s Trump, not Biden, who’s destroyed American standing in Asia, needlessly increased the risks of war in the region, and put the United States in a weaker position to defend American interests as a Pacific power.
The idea that Asian countries think more highly of Trump than Biden, or that they would be somehow more anxious about a Biden presidency than Trump’s, does not reflect our experience. As analysts who live and work in the region, we engage regularly with policy elites and think tankers from Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Antipodes. There are Biden detractors here to be sure—Washington does not have a monopoly on Trump-supporting foreign policy militarists. But they’re a minority.
Our anecdotal encounters are supported by an abundance of opinion polling revealing that confidence in the United States has dropped precipitously since Obama left office. According to a 2020 survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, 77 percent say that U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia has declined under the Trump administration compared to Obama, while the share of respondents in Southeast Asia that had little or no confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner rose from 34 percent in 2019 to 47 in 2020.
The United States ranks behind Japan and the European Union, but notably above China, which has also seen a serious drop in confidence under President Xi Jinping, as the most trusted major power. Crucially, more than 60 percent of respondents to the ISEAS survey said their confidence in the United States would increase if a new president was elected.
A Pew Research Center poll similarly found that confidence in Trump among allies and partners has fallen significantly compared to Obama. In Australia, confidence in Obama in 2016 was 84 percent. By contrast, under Trump that figure was just 35 percent in 2019. In Japan, 78 percent said they were confident in Obama to do the right thing in 2016, while just 36 percent said the same of Trump in 2019. South Koreans’ confidence in Trump fell to 46 percent in 2019 from Obama’s 2016 level of 88 percent. In the Philippines, there was less of a gap between Obama and Trump (94 percent in 2016 versus 77 percent in 2019), but it was still significant.
And after nearly three years, the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative is also far less popular in the region than many in Washington presume. While regional support for multilateral institutions and free trade remains high, a recent survey of Southeast Asian elites by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that most respondents overwhelmingly identify the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the most important for regional order, while less than 10 percent of those surveyed point to FOIP.
There’s simply no way to parse the above data in a manner that favors Trump over Biden. By any measurable indicator, America’s standing has been lower in Asia during Trump’s presidency than before it.
Asia hands who look favorably on Trump believe his decisions have shored up American strength and resolve in the region. As one pundit fawned, “We will look back on Trump with nostalgia.” But the policies most closely associated with U.S. toughness have been counterproductive, not only generating costly reactions but also needlessly increasing risks of conflict.
Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea—aimed at the unrealizable goal of denuclearization—caused the most acute nuclear confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Worse, his summit diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while maintaining maximum pressure did nothing to check the very outcome Trump risked nuclear war to stop in 2017: the expansion and improvement of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile arsenal. After conducting more than 30 missile tests since the first Trump-Kim summit in 2018 alone, North Korea’s ability to threaten the territory of the U.S. and its allies with a nuclear strike is substantially greater now than before Trump came to office.
Trump’s shambolic approach to North Korea carried over to his China policy as well. Taiwan may enjoy the newly opened spigot on U.S. arms sales and the attention lavished on it by U.S. officials these days, but it has been rendered a pawn in a game that has grown more (and needlessly) dangerous on Trump’s watch. Because China views Taiwan’s status as that of an unresolved civil war, its ultimate goal of what Beijing might term reunification, peacefully or otherwise, remains unchanged. But the inhibitions on using force for this end have steadily eroded in recent years. Since 2017, the United States has thrown racist rhetoric at China while declaring itself in a civilizational clash, expanded a trade war, initiated a process of economic decoupling, and changed the status quo toward Taiwan—all while continuing to pursue the largest military buildup since the Cold War. Beijing is now less convinced than ever that Washington will come to Taiwan’s defense if it chooses to attack. One can be an ardent supporter of Taiwan and still recognize that U.S. policies under Trump have only undermined the stability of the Taiwan Strait.
Trump has also done longer-term damage to the U.S. position in Asia, which may take decades to repair. Once considered the region’s great stabilizer, the prevailing image of the United States is that it has become the region’s greatest source of uncertainty. New Zealand, in the estimation of Kiwi strategist Robert Ayson among others, increasingly sees the United States not as a leader but rather one of the so-called great irresponsibles of the world, along with China and Russia. Facing a track record of U.S. unreliability, Australia has begun planning for a future when it may have to deal with China on its own.
Trump has also taken a wrecking ball to long-standing alliances with Japan and Korea, demanding both countries increase their share of financial support for American bases by as much as 400 percent. Tokyo and Seoul have in recent years strengthened ties with Beijing as a hedge against the prospect of U.S. abandonment, and have therefore so far resisted Washington’s demands to ban Chinese telecommunications corporation Huawei from developing their countries’ 5G infrastructure.
As Washington’s influence has ebbed, moreover, relations between Japan and South Korea have reached their worst level since normalization in 1965, driven by identity clashes over historical memory and Japan’s imperial legacy in Korea. The United States has always played a crucial role in buffering friction between its two Northeast Asian allies. But because of the Trump administration’s mishandling of alliance management, a former Japanese defense official now claims Trump has “deepened the overall crisis of antagonism between the two neighbors,” while South Korea says: “The United States is no longer a factor in our issues with Japan.”
And in Southeast Asia, Trump has undermined already controversial efforts to repair tenuous alliances with the Philippines and Thailand. Since the 2016 election of populist President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the 2014 military coup in Thailand, bilateral ties with each country have been fraught. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted last year that the Mutual Defense Treaty extended to disputed waters in the South China Sea, where Beijing has waged a concerted pressure campaign against its smaller neighbor. Whether this and other attempts at alliance management were rewarding Duterte for cozying up to China, or providing a ballast for the Duterte government to stand up to it, did not matter. Trump soon contradicted his administration when asked about Duterte’s decision to terminate the U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows for the rotational deployment of U.S. troops, by saying it would “save a lot of money.”
Finally, Trump has channeled U.S. influence into disrupting Asia’s economic order, upending the economic interdependence underpinning the absence of interstate war in the region since 1979. His decision to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that U.S. diplomats spent years crafting at the start of his presidency crimps America’s ability to promote or even benefit from regional trade and investment. Trump officials have been campaigning to persuade Asian governments to abandon business with Chinese state-owned enterprises without offering any plausible U.S. alternative, particularly in specialized sectors like 5G technology where China has positioned itself to meet global demand.
Trump’s obsession with mercantilism has created blowback for U.S. friends in the region, too. Japanese manufacturers reported significantly lower profits in 2019, with the technology sector particularly hard-hit as a result of fewer purchases by Chinese factories affected by U.S. tariffs. The trade war has also reduced South Korea’s exports to China, especially in its semiconductor industry, which comprises almost half of Korean exports to its largest trading partner. And Trump has bemoaned Vietnam, his most recent target, as “the single worst abuser” on trade. Just this month the administration announced it was investigating Vietnam over timber and currency practices. This undermines efforts to cultivate a partnership with Hanoi that could give it a chance at a geopolitical future independent of China. Worse, it throws a wrench in Vietnam’s bid to become the next Asian so-called miracle economy, because its export-led growth strategy is contingent on a weaker currency and access to the U.S. consumer market.
America today is more estranged from the realities of Asian international relations than most in Trump’s Washington would care to admit. It’s a more dangerous and fragmented region than when Trump took office. Assuming Biden wins the presidency, he (and in all likelihood his successors) will have to expend precious political capital recovering from the risky, costly, and incoherent wagers of the past four years.
Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.