Donald Trump takes office in just over two weeks’ time. During the election campaign he gave indications that he was contemplating tearing up key elements of traditional US policy in East Asia if he won. At the same time as accusing China of currency manipulation and cheating on trade issues, he suggested that, if he became president, the US might cease to underwrite the security of its key allies, Japan and South Korea.

The ‘One China’ policy

Actions and statements after Trump’s election victory caused further ructions. In early December he spoke by telephone with Taiwan’s president, Tsai ing-Wen. He subsequently questioned the validity of the ‘One China’ policy, the cornerstone of China’s relationship with the rest of the world since the 1970s.  The president-elect said: “I fully understand the ‘One China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

The US has endorsed the ‘One China’ policy since 1972. It broke off diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1979 and switched recognition to the People’s Republic. Over the following 40+ years there were no direct communications between the leaders of the US and Taiwan.

A ‘pivot’ to Asia

Under President Obama, the US made a ‘pivot to Asia’, a move welcomed by US allies in the region, whose bargaining power with China it was in part designed to ballast. But it was not designed as a direct challenge to China’s rise.

There is now considerable uncertainty and apprehension in a region which has been compared by some commentators with Europe in the run-up to World War I.  Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat, has argued: “More so than with a usual president, Trump’s propensity for spontaneity and unpredictability create considerable space for crisis.”

How are the countries of the region responding so far to the prospect of President Trump?


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first world leader to visit Donald Trump after his election victory, travelling in person to the US to see him. The mood-music afterwards was positive but nothing of substance was said publicly. Japan has said that it is confident that its alliance with the US will endure. But it will be calculating how best to protect its economic interests given that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which the Obama administration pursued but to which Mr Trump is implacably opposed, now looks dead in the water. For now Japan continues to act as if the TPP might survive.

South Korea

South Korea has as many reasons as Japan to worry about a Trump presidency, but – convulsed by a domestic political crisis which has led to the impeachment of President Park Gyeun-hye – it looks less well placed to respond effectively. But the South Korean government sent a delegation of officials to meet with Trump’s counterparts soon after he won the US presidential election and the public message has been that this alliance will also continue. Like Japan, South Korea may be tempted to try and keep the TPP alive in some shape or form.

There are also fears that Japan and South Korea may feel compelled to make a dash for their own nuclear weapons capability if the US withdraws at the same time as North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability gathers strength.

North Korea

North Korea initially seemed quite enthusiastic about Donald Trump. During the election campaign Trump suggested that Kim Jong-un was a “maniac” with whom he could nonetheless potentially do business. For its part, the North Korean media called the new president “wise”. However, in recent days the president-elect has said that he will not allow North Korea to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach US shores.  Trump has also accused China of doing nothing to bring the rogue state to heel. China disputes this view.


For now, Taiwan is keeping a low profile. While pleased about the phone call, both government and opposition have been fairly tight-lipped in response to Donald Trump’s remarks about the ‘One China’ policy. There is an underlying anxiety that Trump’s support for Taiwan may ultimately prove to be shallow, leading him to use Taiwan as a bargaining-chip in future negotiations with China.


The relationship between China and the US is the most important one for the East Asian region.

Edward Luce, Washington columnist for the Financial Times, has warned: “Without realising it, US voters appear to have opened the gates to a new cold war”.

China initially blamed Taiwan for somehow tricking Donald Trump into speaking with Tsai ing-Wen on the phone. During December China stepped up aircraft exercises close to Taiwan and briefly seized a US underwater drone conducting a surveillance operation in the South China Sea.

The new US administration seems set on a much tougher stance towards China in both the economic and security spheres. The only obvious counter-indication is the appointment of Terry Branstad – a man described as “an old friend of the Chinese people” by a Chinese official – as the new US Ambassador to China. Branstad’s appointment suggests that pragmatic deal-making could prevail in practice. But it is unclear how much influence over policy he will have.

While it is not yet ready to stand toe-to-toe with the US and would prefer to buy more time before even contemplating doing so, China does have genuine ‘red lines’ – above all, the ‘One China’ policy – which, if crossed, could trigger a dangerous confrontation in the coming period.

Background reading

Donald Trump on foreign and defence policy, Commons Library briefing paper, 15 November 2016

A Trump vision for Asia”, Wall Street Journal, 10 November 2016

Bruce Klingner, “What Does Donald Trump’s Victory Mean for Asia?”, Heritage Foundation, 21 November 2016

Richard Bush, “An open letter to Donald Trump on the One-China policy”, Brookings, 13 December 2016

Alarm bell ringing due to Trump’s new pick on trade”, China Daily, 23 December 2016

Picture credit: White House by Diego CambiasoCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)