Challenges and Successes of U.S. Foreign Policy in Asia: Five Minutes with Victor Cha

The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Georgetown University’s Director of Asian Studies, Dr. Victor Cha, to discuss Obama’s foreign policy initiatives in Asia, as well as challenges for his successor.

GJIA: What would you say characterized President Obama’s interests and strategy in Asia?

VC: I think he will be most remembered for the so-called “Pivot to Asia," which emphasized that the United States needed to rebalance its diplomatic and economic efforts in the direction of Asia, particularly in light of how important this region would be for U.S. interests in the future. That was essentially what motivated the shift, and it manifested itself in the rejuvenation of alliances, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the TPP), and in Obama’s frequent trips to the region.

GJIA: What were some of the most noteworthy successes of the Obama administration?

VC: The concept of the United States pivoting to and rebalancing with Asia was itself important. The United States has traditionally had a Eurocentric focus, and so President Obama’s statement that we would be shifting to Asia was important. His decision also reflects the demographics of the country. About 80 percent of Americans aged 18-25 see their future connected to Asia in some way, so American millennials very much support the pivot to Asia. The TPP was also one of the biggest successes of the administration. Many people thought a twelve-member free trade agreement would be very difficult to achieve – especially one that included the United States and Japan, which have the second and the third largest economies in the world, respectively.

GJIA: What were the largest obstacles the Obama Administration faced in Asia?

VC: North Korea remains an obstacle for President Obama. During the past eight years, North Korea’s nuclear threat became much worse. The other obstacle, of course, was ratifying the TPP. President Obama was able to get all twelve TPP members to agree on a deal, but was not able to ratify the deal in Congress.

GJIA: Will these obstacles exist for the new administration?

VC: North Korea is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing the Trump Administration. North Korea is rapidly on its way to developing an ICBM that could hit the West Coast of the Untied States with a nuclear-tip missile. They crossed many other technical thresholds over the past eight years, and it’s highly likely that North Korea will be one of the most proximate threats President Trump will face. It’s likely that North Korea will demonstrate this long-range nuclear capability during President Trump’s time in office. The other obstacle is that the President-elect said he would sign a letter of intent removing the United States from the TPP on his first day. The question then becomes: what will our trade policy be in Asia once the TPP is gone?

GJIA: The United States Had an extraordinarily divisive election. Have any of our allies or adversaries in the region responded to the President-elect's rhetoric during the campaign?

VC: No, I don’t believe so. There was not a lot of foreign policy discussed during the campaign, and I think our allies are trying to figure out how the new administration is going to staff itself and the new directions of U.S. policy. President Trump has never served in public office before, and most of the countries in the region are unfamiliar with him. Now, they are trying to get to know President Trump and get a sense of his ideas. The Prime Minister of Japan visited with President Trump in New York, the President of South Korea called President Trump, and a number of others have contacted him as well. They're trying to better understand who he is and what his policies will be. There is a natural tendency among our friends and partners to hedge when there is change or uncertainty in the United States, because they're not sure what the new policy will be. We’re seeing a little bit of hedging by our allies and partners. This would all change if the Trump administration makes a very strong, positive statement reaffirming the U.S. presence in Asia and our commitment to the region.

GJIA: What do you mean by “hedging”?

VC: In the case of TPP, a number of countries are hedging by not moving forward to ratify the agreement. In the case of China, some of our allies might hedge by getting a little closer to China, both diplomatically and economically. However, this kind of hedging does not ring any alarm bells as it is natural for countries to act like this when the United States is unpredictable or volatile. Many countries are waiting to see how President Trump staffs his cabinet and what his foreign policy priorities will be in the first hundred days of the administration.

GJIA: What effect will President Trump's tearing-up of the TPP have on the economies of the countries who are members of the deal?

VC: Disappointment. A lot of work went into this agreement. It’s not clear whether the other members of the deal would try to move forward on TPP without the United States. It’s possible that many of these countries will start hedging in the sense that they will consider joining the RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – China’s version of a broader, regional free trade agreement. If Trump chooses to renegotiate the TPP, he could insist on discussions on currency manipulation, an issue important to him.

GJIA: You've mentioned that the politics of a number Asian countries are starting to exhibit ethno-nationalist trends, and in a similar fashion, President Trump often expresses ideas of strong "American Nationalism." When nationalist fervor is growing simultaneously both at home and abroad, how will it affect the relationship of the United States with other states in Asia?

VC: There is certainly growing nationalism in all of these countries, and it can be seen in the rhetoric used about development, domestic politics, etc. However, it is unclear whether nationalism would be an obstacle or a lubricant to relations with the United States under Trump, or whether it will have any noticeable impact at all. President Trump has a clear agenda that is focused on issues like tax reform, infrastructure, health care, and immigration. Despite that, what really determines the direction of presidencies is not the agenda, but the crises that each administration faces. For example, with President Bush, everything changed after 9/11.

The entire complexion of his administration, every element of Bush's policies changed after the attacks. President Trump may have all these ideas at the beginning of his term, but only after the first crisis will he determine the direction of his administration. Now, when he faces his first crisis, which I think could very well be North Korea because of their ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, it will have a dramatic effect on how he looks at allies and partners in the region. When there is a crisis, like that of North Korean ICBMs, the United States needs its allies and partners in the region. Ultimately, our relationship with other countries are influenced to a much greater degree by larger events, like these crises, than by the longer term trend issues like echo-nationalism and trade competition.

Professor Victor D. Cha (Ph.D. Columbia, MA Oxford, BA Columbia) is director of Asian Studies and holds the D.S. Song Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. In 2009, he was named as Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He left the White House in May 2007 after serving since 2004 as Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.