Economics and finance, Environment & energy, International relations | Asia, East Asia

23 May 2017

From the climate obstructivism to tensions with North Korea, Trump’s presidency is shaping up to be bad news for peace and development in Asia, Gamini Herath writes.

The years 2015 and 2016 were eventful for global politics, diplomacy and the environment. The climate change agreement forged in Paris in November 2015 and the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals by 193 countries in 2016 were significant achievements. The most significant but dangerous event, however, was the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the new US president in November 2016.

Trump’s rhetoric during the election and his unpredictable behaviour since have heightened political uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region. His threat to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the uncertainty it creates will lead to predictable disaster for the world. This decision is similar to the one made by former-President George Bush to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol and will delay action to confront the most pernicious global environmental issue of the 21st Century. What is the impact of Trump’s wavering policy stance on important global issues for Asia and the Pacific?

Trump’s acolytes such as Scott Pruitt, an oil industry giant now in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, support the pull-out from the Paris Agreement. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and advisor Jared Kushner, although all Trump backers, are opposed to any immediate withdrawal from the climate deal. This is clearly a deep worry for the world, and for Asia which is destined to be the world’s economic centre of gravity by 2040. Climate change deals are routinely denounced by the coal lobby as harbingers of ill fate for business. The scepticism and denial of climate change by Donald Trump and a coterie of hawkish men in industry and business could lead to unmitigated disaster for the world if not effectively countered.

More on this: Trump's economic agenda would be bad news for Asia

Another issue is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN ratified the SDGs in 2016 with 193 countries, including China. The SDGs were designed to mobilise global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical problem-solving by governments for sustainable development. Around 193 countries have now committed to support the implementation of the SDGs nationally and globally, with much awaited US leadership which is essential in a wholly interconnected world.

This will not be helped by Trump’s increasingly belligerent military posture in the Middle East and Asia, especially regarding North Korea. The selfishness of Trump has become clear from his backflip over China when Xi Jinping visited Washington in April 2017. Days after the meeting, Trump said that “China is a not a currency manipulator”. His attempt to mollycoddle China through such verbal sweeteners seem childish; China cannot be pushed into any rash decisions over North Korea because of its own political interests and the impact of any effort to destabilise its neighbour.

Meanwhile the withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is another cause for concern. It may not be decisive for Asia, due to the many faults in the TPP formulation itself. However it does leave Asian nations worried over what it signals about the absence of US leadership in the region, and Japan in particular is most concerned.

Trump’s ambivalence in recognising the importance of climate change and the negotiated settlement of global disputes may open up opportunities for other countries. Most notably, China might come to fill the vacuum created by the US unwittingly abdicating her leadership role. This may not necessarily be welcome news. The quality of Chinese leadership is questionable and may also lead to other unintended consequences, such as India flexing its own political muscle in the region. How about Australia? China is Australia’s major trade partner but it is clearly politically affiliated with the United Sates. The threats to global free trade emerging from Trump’s America First policy will backfire if other nations adopt similar retaliatory measures.

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The waves of distrust and fear created by Trump may slow down over time for climate change and the TPP, but the North Korean issue is likely to remain a dangerous flash point in the near future. While war remains unlikely at present, any mishap or miscalculation could lead to a deepening crisis. Trump’s sabre-rattling, his rhetoric of deploying an Armada of ships to the Korean Peninsula, and the recent gaffe in saying that Korea was part of China thousands of years ago, show a lack of both historical knowledge about Asia and diplomatic skills by the most powerful man in the world.

So what could be done to help reverse the Trump factor in Asia?

As far as North Korea goes, the US would be well advised to pull back from the brink and allow China, South Korea and Japan to play a greater negotiating role on the Korean issue, which remains volatile and ominous. As economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, biological and social phenomena are not always linear, but often have tipping points. War between North Korea and the US would be one such a tipping point where there will be no winners. Cool heads and careful deliberation must prevail.

More broadly, for both climate change and the SDGs, we are already seeing the reality of Trump’s vision of ‘America first’. As unlikely as it might be, a vision of ‘planet first’ is what is really needed for America’s role in Asia.

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