A Japanese Perspective

What Do the Midterm Elections Mean for Trump’s East Asia Policies?

The 2018 midterm elections have revealed that President Trump has only Plan A for his reelection campaign in 2020. Trump will seek to go back to the White House by appealing solely to his core support base. This approach will mostly dictate Trump’s approach to East Asia in the next two years. 

The president’s party historically does poorly in the midterm elections. Additionally, presidents with a job approval rating below 50% tend to lose close to 40 House seats. Two months before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump had only a 40% job approval rating. Furthermore, the Democrats were energized. Sensing the danger of a Blue Wave, which may undermine his reelection efforts, Trump held an unusually high number of campaign rallies, which were exact copies of his rallies in the 2016 president election. His messages were aimed only at his core support base in the red states, which mostly consists of less-than college educated, white working class, culturally conservative, and narrowly patriotic voters. Focusing his appeal on this base has likely ramifications for trade and security policy in the Indo-Pacific region as well as for the overall packaging of Trump’s policies through some sort of vision of the region’s future.

Usually, once assuming the office, a president softens sharp campaign rhetoric and tries to govern by mending the relationship with the opposition party. Trump has been doing the opposite, viciously attacking his political opponents, treating many politicians with disdain, and catering only to the interests of his core support base. He seems to engage in a permanent election campaign from the White House rather than governing as president. A similar conclusion can be drawn about Trump’s foreign policy. Instead of following the usual trajectory of shifting from campaign “cheap shots” at the most obvious targets of public arousal to trust in the security, intelligence, and diplomatic communities and reassurance to allies, this president has often demeaned these experts and shocked US allies. This too has implications for how his policies are likely to unfold toward the Indo-Pacific area, although at present some of Trump’s inclinations correspond to the consensus that has been building in US policymaking circles and draw at least general support from countries eager to keep the United States engaged in this region.

In his numerous campaign rallies during the midterm elections, Trump did not show even a hint of Plan B, i.e. to reach out to voters outside the core support base, such as college educated, multi-ethnic, the middle and upper class, culturally tolerant, and globally oriented voters. These people are branded the enemy to his core support base, as are journalists, called “horrible people” and widely jeered by his core supporters. On foreign policy, while there is also no indication of preparations for any sort of Plan B, the world awaits Trump’s unpredictable personal summitry that can turn policy toward North Korea on a dime and leaves policy toward China in limbo awaiting either a deal or a full-scale confrontation over trade, security, and a framework for the regional order.

What do the midterm elections mean for Trump’s foreign policy? 

Trump will most likely continue and even intensify his “America First” slogan. He will do so in an increasingly incendiary manner in an effort to energize his core support base having the 2020 presidential election in mind and possibly to divert political attacks relating to Russia and his family business by newly empowered Democrats. He will try to strike a chord among his supporters, who have been suffering from rapid globalization, by inflaming the idea that foreign countries are out there to outmaneuver the United States in an untrustworthy way and to take advantage of it using unfair tactics.

The Trump White House has had a very high rate of turnover. revealing a long-term trend from globalists to anti-globalists. People who have global views and realistic experiences in the world, such as Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Jim Mattis, are either out or on their way out, while people, who more or less share the “America First” slogan and Trumpian xenophobia, such as Mike Pompeo, Larry Kudlow, John Bolton, and Peter Navarro, are gaining influence within the administration. 


With regard to US policy toward East Asia, the focal point will continue to be China, the single biggest challenger to the US hegemony in the region. The major remarks by Vice President Pence at the Hudson Institute in early October will underscore Trump’s approach to China in the next two year. Pence harshly criticized China for its “whole-of-government approach” using political, economic, military, and propaganda tools to advance its national interests at the cost of the United States. Pence declared “under President Trump’s leadership, the United States has taken decisive action to respond to China with American action.” Trump will most likely intensify his rhetoric against China, as it perfectly fits Trump’s “America First” campaign slogan. China takes jobs and well-being away from you by cheating in trade with the United States. China tramples on human rights, oppresses religious activities, and suppresses political freedom under one-party dictatorship. China militarizes the South China Sea despite promises not to do so and steals highly sensitive technologies from US companies. Such rhetoric against China may not be sophisticated and even counterproductive to the bilateral relationship but it certainly resonates well with his core support base. Even if Trump were to again claim victory through a trade deal with Xi Jinping achieved through Trump’s toughness, this would not stand in the way of further intensification of criticism of China’s failings.

Trump’s narratives will increase, when suspicion against China among American people are at an all-time high. The threat of China is widely shared among policy makers and lawmakers regardless of their party affiliation. They have a view that although the US has generally supported China to become a respected and responsible member of the international community, China has betrayed the US trust by gradually undermining the US position in the region in underhanded ways. They are increasingly insistent that China will not subscribe to the framework of the liberal international order, and we must do something to stop China from dominating East Asia.

For example, Senator Corey Gardner, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, together with lawmakers like Democrat Ed Markey and Republican Marco Rubio, introduced a bill called the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 designed to prevent Chinese hegemony by developing “a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United State policy.” The bill has passed the Senate and the amended bill has passed the House with widespread bipartisan support by lawmakers in both chambers.

The threat of China is also increasingly shared by the business community, which has historically been careful not to openly antagonize China because of their business interests in and with China. As they have become frustrated with China’s unfair trade practices, investment restrictions, technology theft, and so on, they have been increasingly willing to share information and to work with policy makers in Washington. While there is no basis to suggest that US technology companies played any role in the recent arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunication titan Huawei who is charged with violating sanctions against Iran, there has certainly emerged a more symbiotic relationship between the private business people in trade, technology, and investment and the public sector people. 

Despite the fact that concern with China has generally heightened in the United States, it is not clear whether Trump will be able to come up with a realistic and effective China policy. While Trump will likely intensify his verbal attacks on China, neither he nor administration officials seem to have a consistent, concrete strategy to deal with China even on the critically important policy issues between the two countries. It is doubtful whether Trump himself has a clear idea on how to deal with China to achieve his goals, as he contradicts economists in his view of merchandise trade deficits and bypasses the international community in taking unilateral actions that often appear impulsive.

For example, in the aftermath of the recent arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Trump seems to have suggested that the United States may be willing to be lenient on law enforcement regarding her, if China would go soft on trade such as purchasing more soybeans or automobiles from the United States. In the face of serious allegations of bank fraud, Trump failed to coordinate with law enforcement in this suggestion, undermining the principle of the rule of law vital to the vision of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific used to rally international support. Such an approach by Trump creates confusion within the US government and is obviously not the most effective way for the United States to negotiate trade deals with China.

Indo-Pacific Vision

In November 2017 in Vietnam, Trump laid out his vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific as the central US approach to Asia. A year later, on November 9, immediately following the midterm elections, Pence expressed the administration’s determination to be the leading partner in the vast area stretching from the US to India and from Japan to Australia. He pointed to prosperity, security, and universal values, (such as rule of law, individual rights, and rejection of authoritarianism and aggression) as the three pillars of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. While Pence never mentioned China in his op-ed piece in The Washington Post, it was clearly written with China in mind.

The Indo-Pacific vision announced by Trump and Pence presents a set of laudable strategic goals for the United States and its allies in the region, which share the same political, economic, and social values. The Indo-Pacific is the theater, in which the great power competition between the United States and China takes place. Additionally, the Indo-Pacific region will continue to be the growth center of the world for the foreseeable future. Considering these factors, the United States and its allies would be wise to take the Indo-Pacific vision seriously in a coordinated way. Yet, it is not clear whether Trump and his administration will be able to come up with a concrete process to actually make progress in the Indo-Pacific vision. The biggest reason is that the Indo-Pacific vision seems to be outside the scope of Trump’s reelection campaign efforts. First, this vision does not seem to offer anything exciting to his core support base to praise the president. On the contrary, it may hurt the image of Trump that he is ineffective just like other political leaders have been. The vision also likely would require a long time to show signs of even a little progress, whereas Trump has only two years to go until the next presidential election.

Second, similar to TPP, which Trump gleefully denounced to the satisfaction of his base, this is a vision of multilateralism, not of America First. The Indo-Pacific vision requires sustained and professional efforts to work with the counterparts in the Quad, i.e., Japan, India, and Australia. It is not a forte of Trump and his administration to work patiently in an atmosphere of mutual respect in multilateral forums. Trump’s volatile and whimsical style of dealing with foreign leaders often complicates what are already complex negotiations. 

Third, Trump seems to think bilateral trade negotiations are more important than making progress on the Indo-Pacific vision. Japan is a case in point. Prime Minister Abe, who was first to articulate the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, is willing to work closely with the United States to advance this vision. However, it is clear that Trump places far more importance on bilateral trade than the vision, when he communicates with Abe.

Lastly, Trump seems to have neither the strategy nor the personnel to work with the ASEAN countries in the framework of the Indo-Pacific vision. The US approach to the ASEAN countries has to be nuanced and skillful, as they normally take positions only when all members form a consensus. As many ASEAN countries have to be considerate to China, it will be difficult for ASEAN as a whole to cooperate with the United States in the framework of the Indo-Pacific vision. That is well-understood, but the diplomacy to work around it is challenging in a way Trump’s simplistic ways are unlikely to grasp.

North Korea

Trump eagerly approached North Korea in the second year of his presidency and held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June. For Trump, the summit was fundamentally a political show or a campaign rally to appeal to his core political base that he had achieved something that no other president was able to do and that the United States is safer than before thanks to him. By simply meeting Kim and proclaiming a historic success, he left the impression that he had fundamentally fulfilled an election campaign promise. In reality, Trump made the situation worse not only for the United States but for allies in the region by holding the summit. He essentially recognized North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state by negotiating denuclearization. He created a complex situation for future negotiations by verbally agreeing on matters of security on the Korean Peninsula. He opened the possibility for future negotiations on inspections of possible nuclear weapons in South Korea contrary to the United States’ neither confirm nor deny policy. He agreed to suspend US-ROK joint military exercises. He was oblivious to the specific concerns of the allies in the region. He did all of this without securing any concrete returns from North Korea. However, it does not matter to Trump from the viewpoint of appealing to his core support base.

As a result, there is a reasonably high likelihood that another summit with Kim Jong-un will be held before 2020 to revitalize Trump’s core support base. The next summit, if it is going to be held, will likely be a high-risk, low-return encounter for the United States and its allies, as Kim Jong-un will be fully prepared to take advantage of Trump, whose primary goal in the meeting will be to present a political show for his election campaign. It seems unlikely that Trump will carefully approach the serious threats presented by North Korea in close coordination with US allies in the region.

Finally, there is a serious need for closer communication and coordination among the United States, Japan, and South Korea not only to deal with North Korean nuclear and missile issues but also to deal with wider regional security concerns. At this particular time, the relationship between Japan and South Korea has been experiencing a setback. As Japan and South Korea have demonstrated an inability to establish a positive relationship, the United States should ideally facilitate constructive dialogue between its two allies in the region, as it has done to good effect in the past. But obviously for Trump, there are not many reasons to spend precious political capital on the relationship between Japan and South Korea, as Japanese and Koreans will not vote in 2020.