Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Asia, The World

30 September 2020

The United States’ transactional approach to diplomacy is causing short-term problems, but the need to contain a rising China will be enough to keep its alliance network together, Ragul Palanisami writes.

President Barack Obama took office in the midst of the global financial crisis that began in 2007. The economic recession put tremendous pressure on fiscal stability at a time when, on the other side of the Pacific, the rise of China was causing unease among its neighbours. Though the Obama administration announced its Pivot to Asia strategy with much fanfare, the strategy did not produce truly important outcomes.

It was at this time that the calls for ‘retrenchment’, that is, a shift away from Asia and a move toward isolationism, gained traction. Calls for the United States to ‘pick its battles’ grew louder within the country’s strategic community.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised a paradigm shift in American foreign policy which some have categorised as ‘zero-sum’. According to Hal Brands, Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the John Hopkins University, Trump’s vision embodies the following: withdrawal from alliances where there is coercive rent-seeking from alliance partners, a significant reduction in participation in multilateral institutions, withdrawal from free trade agreements, and punishing China specifically for its ‘unfair’ trade practices.

Once elected, Trump’s foreign policy began to unfold in this very manner, beginning with his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Subsequently, the Trump administration fomented a trade war with China by targeting a number of Chinese goods with tariffs. This was followed by a trade war on the technology front, which gained visibility with the targeting of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

There are three possible explanations for the Trump administration’s economic tirade against China. The first explanation is based on President Trump’s personal worldview. It is possible that his administration’s response has been in consonance with his own beliefs about China. This can be supported by the fact that during his 2016 campaign, the president constantly attacked China for acting ‘unfairly’.

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He was also highly critical of the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with China, especially their backing of China’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

The second explanation is that the president sees political advantage in attacking China, thanks to a rise of economic nationalism in the United States.

The third explanation is that the American state at large, rather than just the president, has perceived a Chinese challenge to American economic and technological supremacy, something which might translate into a national security threat for the United States in the future, and is acting to prevent the problems it may cause.

Regardless of the specific origin of this tension, Sino-American relations have sunk to a new low amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and have turned into an openly ideological rivalry.

What began as economic competition under the Trump administration is becoming broader political rivalry, encompassing geo-strategic competition, and ideological warfare.

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The brewing tension between the two countries has once again vindicated theorists’ contention that the international system is prone to hegemonic wars in times of power transition.

In this evolving scenario, some have pointed to the existing alliance system in the Indo-Pacific as being ‘indispensable’ to American national interests.

Therefore, as the Trump administration sought to fight what it called ‘rent-seeking’ – on defense burden-sharing and trade – towards Japan and South Korea, many commentators warned that such a tough stance could alienate them.

Given that these countries strategically have much in common with the United States, this behaviour might appear irrational and hard to explain. But this can be explained not only by Trump’s idiosyncrasies, but also by domestic politics.

The Trump administration’s push for ‘decoupling’ from China is primarily an act of economic nationalism, not international politics. To be successful, a decoupling strategy requires the United States to coordinate its foreign economic policy with its allies. So the Trump administration must to enlist the support of its Asian allies in its rivalry with China if it is to effectively decouple from China. These allies know this, and are unlikely to step away from the alliance, with China rising rapidly in their neighbourhood.

What may look like a complete turnaround in the country’s approach towards its allies remains less than likely, even under President Trump, as the containment of China remains too important a mutual interest for the alliance system to unravel. Ultimately, the ‘transactional’ approach adopted by the Trump administration towards its allies in the region is unlikely to cause irreparable damage.

While there might be some improvement in relations with America’s allies after President Trump’s term ends, good relations in the long run will depend not on individual presidents. Instead, it will be the extent of burden-sharing, the success of decoupling with China, and the future strength of the United States at large that would decide their future.

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