President Trump's Asia Inbox

white house night gettyimages The White House at dusk. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Scholars at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies assess the strategic situation in East Asia to be unsettled, unstable, and drifting in ways unfavorable for American interests. These developments are worrisome to countries in the region, most of which want the United States to reduce uncertainty about American intentions by taking early and effective steps to clarify and solidify U.S. engagement. In the absence of such steps, they will seek to reduce uncertainty and protect their own interests in ways that reduce U.S. influence and ability to shape regional institutions. The recommendations summarized below, and elaborated in a 23-page report entitled “President Trump’s Asia Inbox,” suggest specific steps to achieve American economic and security interests.

» Key Recommendations

» Full Report with Preface from Director Gi-Wook Shin and Introduction by Amb. Michael H. Armacost

» About the Contributors

» Information for Press

» Press Coverage

Key Recommendations. 


Trade and Economic Relations

The dynamic economies of East Asian countries are increasingly integrated and interdependent. The United States is an important market and source of investment and technology, but this is no longer sufficient to ensure that future arrangements and rules will protect American interests. The region is moving toward more formal, rule-based arrangements and the United States must be an active shaper of those institutions.

Most in the region want the United States to play a leading role in the establishment and enforcement of free and fair international economic transactions, and want the rules and mechanisms governing trade to be multilateral ones. If we do not play such a role, China, and possibly others, will seek arrangements that disadvantage American firms.

  • The replacement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should build on what was achieved in those negotiations, especially those that would assure market access for U.S. firms and protect intellectual property rights, enforce labor standards, and ensure environmental protection. A single multilateral agreement would be best, but much could be achieved through interlocking and consistent bilateral agreements.
  • The administration should adopt policy measures to increase employability and create jobs for the Americans who have been disadvantaged by globalization.

Defense and Security

China’s military buildup and North Korea’s growing arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons have fueled concerns about U.S. will and ability to honor its security commitments in the region. No one wants a regional arms race or tit-for-tat moves that increase the danger of accidental conflict or escalation, but many believe concrete steps are needed to check perceptions that the United States is becoming less willing to maintain the peace and stability that undergirds regional prosperity.

  • While reaffirming the need for a forward presence in the region, reconfigure it along the lines of an “active denial” strategy. “Active denial” means maintaining a forward presence in East Asia that is designed to deny an opponent the benefits of military aggression, especially the prospect of a quick victory. The first component of such a strategy is a resilient force posture, which can be achieved by exploiting the size and depth of the region to distribute units in more locations. The second component is an emphasis on planning to conduct military operations against an adversary’s offensive strike or maneuver forces, not targets deep inside an adversary’s homeland territory and not by carrying out preemptive strikes.
  • Strengthen U.S. military capabilities by developing and fielding stealthier air and maritime platforms, increase submarine and anti-submarine assets, and provide forward deployed forces with better active defenses, such as rail guns and lasers. At the same time, the United States should assist those neighbors of the PRC who feel threatened by Chinese assertiveness to develop asymmetric coercive capabilities that can put at risk forward-deployed PLA forces. The United States can use elements of such assistance programs as points of negotiating leverage in our attempts to limit militarization on both sides.
  • Continue to promote U.S.-China military relations, emphasizing accident avoidance and crisis management, sustained dialogues on national strategies and doctrines, and cooperative endeavors, such as training exercises and combined operations, where and when feasible and mutually beneficial.


People in the region worry about China’s actions and intentions but they worry more about the prospect of confrontation and conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic. They look to the United States as a counterbalance to China but fear that Washington will overreact or underreact to actions by Beijing, or take provocative actions that jeopardize their own interests. The U.S. should:

  • Respond to Chinese actions inimical to American interests in ways that protect our interests, achieve U.S. goals shared by others in the region, and avoid both the reality and the appearance of being “anti-China.”
  • Reaffirm American commitments to allies and partners including China and Taiwan.
  • Tighten enforcement of import restrictions on products produced by firms that have stolen intellectual property from U.S. companies.

Korean Peninsula

North Korea is threatening an ICBM test in 2017, possibly in the next few weeks or months. There is a political vacuum in South Korea, and Seoul is being pressured and punished by Beijing to reverse its decision to accept the deployment of a U.S. THAAD missile defense in South Korea. Under these circumstances, these are our priority recommendations for the administration

  • It should work to dissuade North Korea from an ICBM test. Publicly, the new administration should reaffirm that the U.S. would use military means against an ICBM that appeared to threaten the U.S. or one of our allies. Regular spring ROK-U.S. joint military exercises should be held, but calibrated and conducted to avoid giving Pyongyang extra pretext for a test. The Trump administration should appoint a senior envoy empowered to go to Pyongyang to convey openness to renewed diplomacy, while at the same time being clear about the consequences of an ICBM test. China will share this goal, and the new Trump administration should establish a dialogue with China on North Korea based on this shared interest rather than linked to other issues in the U.S.-China relationship, such as bilateral trade. The Trump administration should not negotiate the THAAD issue with Beijing but rather stick to the principle that this is a Seoul-Washington issue.
  • The U.S.-ROK relationship will need early and special attention in 2017. Secretary of Defense Mattis’ early visit to the ROK was a wise move. With names already announced for Beijing and Tokyo, a new American ambassador for Seoul should be nominated soon. Despite the political leadership vacuum in Seoul, the Trump administration should strive for the closest possible diplomatic, political, and military coordination on North Korea with our South Korean allies. Trade and burden-sharing issues should not be front-burner issues during South Korea’s political transition. U.S. neutrality in the South Korean election, along with demonstrated respect for South Korea’s democracy, will be carefully monitored, and is essential, as is strengthening U.S. contacts and outreach across the political spectrum in South Korea.


The Abe administration is the most stable government Japan has had for many years. The prime minister wants to work with Washington, is prepared to deepen defense cooperation with the United States and others in the region, and is eager to lock in the commitments and arrangements negotiated in the TPP. There is a real opportunity to secure access for U.S. firms greater than achieved by any previous administration.

  • Build upon arrangements negotiated in TPP to secure a U.S.-Japan free-trade agreement (FTA) that increases access for U.S. firms and locks in economic reforms initiated by the Abe government.
  • Propose annual head of state level trilateral cooperation summits with Japan and South Korea and seek greater trilateral cooperation, particularly in the area of security cooperation. Caution Tokyo against steps backward on historical reconciliation.

Southeast Asia and the South China Sea

Southeast Asia is most vulnerable to and concerned about China’s actions and intentions. Countries in the region want the United States to counterbalance and constrain China but worry equally that the United States is unreliable and unequal to the challenge of protecting their interests while preserving American interests vis-à-vis China. Unless given a better option, they will lean toward China for economic and security reasons.

  • The United States should anchor U.S. policy on the South China Sea (SCS) to an explicit commitment that no single country—not the US, not China, nor anyone else—should seek or enjoy a monopoly of ownership and control over that body of water. To underscore that commitment, the United States should execute freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in waters between and around the Spratly islands. These and other operations in the SCS should be conducted in conformity with the authoritative ruling on the status of its waters and land features issued in 2016 by the arbitral court convened for that purpose under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • The United States should also try, in concert with its allies and partners, to bring the SCS under international protection and management by a combination of claimant and user states, including the United States and China, based on international law. The Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative should be enlarged and upgraded to serve this purpose. If China declines to join, a chair at the table should remain empty should Beijing change its mind.

The U.S. should remain engaged with the process of regional and trans-Pacific institution building, including but not limited to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual meetings, the East Asian Summit, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which will be hosted by Vietnam in 2017.

Full Report with Preface from Gi-Wook Shin and Introduction by Amb. Michael H. Armacost.


The policy recommendations published above are a summary included in the beginning of a 23-page report entitled “President Trump’s Asia Inbox.” You may view the full report here.

About the Contributors

Michael H. Armacost is a Shorenstein APARC Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the Philippines.

Karl Eikenberry is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Shorenstein APARC; director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative; former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Lieutenant General (Ret.), U.S. Army.

Donald K. Emmerson is a senior fellow emeritus at FSI; director of the Southeast Asia Program at Shorenstein APARC; and affiliated with FSI’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.

Thomas Fingar is a Shorenstein APARC Fellow and has served as former first deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and chairman of the National Intelligence Council, among other positions.

Takeo Hoshi is the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies and director of the Japan Program.

Gi-Wook Shin is the director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center; senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; director of the Korea Program; and the Tong Yang, Korea Foundation, and Korea Stanford Alumni Chair of Korean Studies, all at Stanford.

Daniel C. Sneider is the associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC, co-director of the Divided Memories and Reconciliation project and a former foreign correspondent.

Kathleen Stephens is the William J. Perry Fellow in the Korea Program at Shorenstein APARC and former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

Information for Press.


The contributors are open to comment, interview and provide background information on the contents of the report, “President Trump’s Asia Inbox.” To inquire about availability, please contact Lisa Griswold, Shorenstein APARC Communications and Outreach Coordinator, at or (650) 736-0656.

Related Press Coverage


Stanford report offers policy insights for the Trump administration, Caixin Media (in Chinese), Feb. 13, 2017

"Trump, do not bring up KORUS FTA and US forces cost-sharing until S. Korea's next presidential election," Yonhap News and various other outlets (in Korean), Feb. 13, 2017

China looks to US to resolve N. Korea nuclear issue, The Straits Times (in English), Feb. 15, 2017

Stanford experts offer policy proposals, insights on US-Asia relations, Stanford News Service (in English), Feb. 15, 2017

Unsettled, unstable and drifting: Today's US-East Asia relationship, Medium (in English), Feb. 16, 2017

Why Japan will also be "convenient" for the Trump administration, Tokyo Business Today (in Japanese), Feb. 18, 2017

Study: Managing China relationship most consequential to US, China Daily USA (in English), Feb. 21, 2017

How the Trump administration should address China, Tokyo Business Today (in Japanese), Feb. 23, 2017

Fears of Trump giving China free reign in Asia misplaced, Asia Times (in English), Feb. 24, 2017