In his 2016 campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump promised to step away from alliances, free trade agreements, and efforts to promote human rights, steps that would have substantially undermined the liberal international order. Early in his presidency, as he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he appeared set to make good on these promises. But since then, the policies of his administration in East Asia — on issues from trade, to diplomatic engagement, to North Korea — have come to more closely resemble those of his predecessors than his campaign vision. Robust institutions and advisers with more conventional views on foreign policy have played key roles in moderating the president’s more extreme instincts.
US policy in East Asia is thus on autopilot, which presents two distinct risks. First, that of a crisis, whether created by the president or events. In a crisis, the president’s personal influence over East Asia policy will reach its peak, and the wisdom and equanimity of key advisers and professionals will fall away. Likewise, Trump’s travel to the region will place him in situations in which his influence over policy will surge, and his advisers’ and institutions’ influence will recede. Second, without focused leadership from the president, the United States will struggle to respond to challenges in the region posed by the rising Chinese power and rising populism and illiberalism. Without a compelling vision for the prosperity and security of the region, the US could find itself low on fuel and far off course by the time a qualified pilot can retake control of the aircraft.