Trump and the future of American policy in Asia

How the rhetoric may translate into reality in the region

Simon Reich

Economics and finance, Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, National security, South China Sea | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

10 November 2016

The simple solutions espoused on the campaign trail will be quite different to the rocky road of foreign policy the US seems set to walk following the election of Donald Trump, Simon Reich writes.

The American Presidential election is finally over. Two years of accusations, innuendo and insinuations, leaks and even the occasional debate has yielded what was commonly regarded as the most unlikely outcome at the outset: Donald Trump has lost the popular vote (at my time of writing) but squeezed out a victory, because of the vagaries of the American electoral college system. It is a stunning repudiation of the assumptions that have dominated the American political process for half a century or more, including a commitment to greater inclusiveness at home and free trade and global leadership abroad.

Then again, in many ways, we have just reached the end of the beginning. Half of the United States is relieved. Half is inconsolable, anguished and shocked. Both sets of supporters have little respect for the members of the other group. The divided States of America will require a large amount of healing. Neither Clinton nor Trump were ever well placed to accomplish this task, despite Trump’s pledge to do so in his victory speech. Nor for that matter would have been President Obama. He enjoyed high job approval ratings at the end of his presidency. But, paradoxically, views of him are still the most polarised in recent American history.

A Republican Congressional Senate majority to add to that in the House offers little reassurance to Trump’s political opponents. Nor does an FBI that played an unprecedented role in the electoral process. So, it looks as though, at least for the next two years, the Republicans will ride roughshod over the objections of the Congressional Democrats. The American system, famed for its checks and balances, currently has none for the new President and Congress. They will even get to pick their own new Supreme Court justices.

There are only two possibilities that may derail that process. The first is that Trump and the Republican Congressional leadership split over several key issues, like government spending and free trade. These differences may prove divisive – signalling an internal fight within the party. The second is the fact that the electorate has expressed a high level of disgust with the political process, and few believe that the country can be united – but it should be. It will not augur well for the Republicans in the Congressional midterm elections in two years time if they fail to deliver on Trump’s promises to clean up politics in Washington and “make America great again” through large-scale growth and lots of new jobs for his supporters. His core constituency is principally white, male, uneducated voters – those who are likely to benefit from his proposed large-scale infrastructure program.

The domestic context of foreign policy.

At the outset of the Cold War, Arthur Vandenberg uttered what became a common mantra.  Faced with the Soviet threat, he suggested that “politics stopped at the water’s edge.” The American approach to foreign policy was bipartisan. The Vietnam War ebbed away at that assumption as the country became divided. But even the relatively recent entry to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were initially greeted by widespread support among Americans, although Democrats and Republicans were divided about the wars a decade later.

Indeed, Americans today are as polarised about foreign policy as they are about domestic matters. In election polls, the economy and job security was ranked the number one issue. But even that was, in fact, a foreign policy issue: a debate about the merits of globalisation, the benefits of global economic engagement and thus whether the new president should pursue a free trade agenda.

More on this: Donald Trump: The Paranoid-Jacksonian

Importantly, terrorism ranked second, and foreign policy more generally ranked third. Where public opinion finds more common ground is the view that “it would be better if the US just dealt with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can.” Donald Trump’s particularly abrasive views about others ‘paying their fair share’ was therefore embraced by the voters.

Old and new style

George W Bush preferred a modified version of a unilateral approach to foreign policy. America would use modest ‘coalitions of the willing,’ but these were largely comprised of countries that could be bribed or cajoled into supporting the American position.

Clearly, Obama preferred a more multilateral approach. His posture was often more restrained, utilising a strategy of sponsorship in which he supported allies and partners without putting Americans on the front lines. This was endorsed by Hillary Clinton as part of her promise of extending Obama’s predecessor’s legacy.

Based on his campaign promises, Donald Trump is likely to pursue a more markedly unilateral policy approach than either of his two predecessors. Foreign policy for Trump is ‘transactional,’ rather than built on a foundation of trust and institutional relationships. Foreign policy negotiations are akin to a business deal in which he seeks to achieve the best bargain at the cheapest price for America. This is his definition of the ‘national interest.’

America in Asia

So what is likely to preoccupy the new president when it comes to foreign policy in Asia? President Obama was the first American president in the modern era who focused more on Asia than Europe. This was reflected in his rebalancing towards the region, both militarily and economically. Clinton reputedly shared that sentiment. Indeed, she consistently argued for a greater focus on the region.

There is no evidence that Trump feels the same way.

First, and foremost, he will be consumed by events in the Middle East, although the conflicts against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria may well be decided by the time he takes office. Yet America’s new president will have to address the consequences of ISIS’ disintegration in Iraq and Syria, notably in Libya. The temptation will be to tell the Europeans that this is their problem. But the American public’s continued concerns about the region being used as a planning and training ground of attacks against the US may ensure that he has to engage there.

Second, much has been made of Trump and Putin’s mutual respect. But that honeymoon may only last until these two reputedly thin-skinned presidents try and assert their authority in a disagreement. Thus, pretty quickly, a swathe of issues with Russia, stretching from the Arctic to the Baltics, Eastern Europe and on to Ukraine to the Black Sea will consume his attention and American resources – more so than it did Obama given Russia’s growing global ambitions.

Nonetheless, there are three specific issues in Asia that Trump can’t ignore.

More on this: China narrows the South China Sea

The first is China. Every American president since Nixon has tried a combination of three strategies when it comes to the China. First, engage the Chinese diplomatically, mostly to draw them away from Russia. Second, do all that the US can to encourage the growth of a large Chinese middle class in the hope that they will demand democratic reforms. And third, constrain China’s growth as a regional military power by locating forces in Asia and reinforcing alliances with other Asian powers.

Obama did all three. He enlarged the American military presence. And he championed the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement that does not include China — as a means to deal with China’s rising power by reinforcing America’s relationship with key allies in the region. Thus economic relations may have had their virtue. But they largely served security objectives.

But Trump will likely radically change the balance. His primary focus, based on his campaign promises, is on economics rather than security. Contrary to what he has said about Russia, Trump has sounded an avowedly confrontational tone about China. He has called it a currency manipulator and discussed introducing new trade barriers against Chinese imports. Indeed, given his newfound camaraderie with Russia, he may try and isolate China by drawing on Russian support. My sense is that this will fail, given China and Russia’s shared interests and institutional ties. But there is precious little to suggest that American Secretaries of Defense will be travelling on US Navy ships through disputed areas in the South China Sea in support of its allies. Rodrigo Duterte, the leader of the Philippines may only be the first of several Asian leaders who tilt towards Beijing because they now believe that they can’t rely on Washington’s military support.

The second is the increasingly existential threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Here Trump has staked a very hawkish position. But he implicitly recognises that he will need China’s help in dealing with a bellicose North Korea in order to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula. He has repeatedly claimed on the campaign trail, for example, that China could quell North Korea’s aggression if they wanted.

The Chinese, though, are fearful of the regime’s collapse. That could entail two bad choices for the Chinese. The first is a reunified Korea on China’s border. The second is a preemptive war to thwart North Korea’s development of a viable nuclear threat that would destabilise the entire region.

Yet the Chinese relationship with North Korea has frayed. China has clearly lost its capacity for restraining North Korea’s leadership. The Chinese even endorsed UN sanctions against its traditional ally and the two have now been engaged in an uncharacteristically public war of words. So Trump will need Chinese assistance on this front, while trying to contain China’s growing influence on several others.

He may have argued that both Japan and South Korea should pay for their own defence. But, perhaps paradoxically, he can’t leave the issue of North Korea up to them for two reasons. First, the North Koreans are openly threatening the United States. And second, Congressional Republicans won’t let him.

The third issue is free trade, one that makes the relationship with China even more complex.

More on this: The Trans-Pacific Partnership: more than a trade agreement

Many Americans have abandoned the notion that globalisation and free trade benefits the US. They think it is the source of job insecurity, not the solution to it. Thus the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement is dead for the foreseeable future. Still, the US has to trade with someone. And Trump is a pragmatist when it comes to deals. So there is likely to be an attempt to cobble together a plethora of bilateral trade agreements with countries in the region. This could substantially benefit countries such as Australia if its exports complement, rather than competes with American economic interests. It could well enjoy the benefits of ‘preferred trade status.’

Of course, focusing on those three big issues inevitably discounts several others, like American relations with ASEAN. But many of those kinds of issues fit into the broader mosaic of the relationship between the US and China that dominates the region.

For Americans, the new president’s lack of foreign policy experience, and lack of knowledge about or interest in Asia, is worrying. It will be destabilising unless Trump surrounds himself with the right kind of advisors and listens to them. The early signs, however, are that these people will be hawkish. My best guess is that the next four years will be a rocky ride in a notably complex environment – one at odds with the simple solutions espoused by politicians on the campaign trail.

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Citation

Reich, Simon. 2017. "Trump And The Future Of American Policy In Asia - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/trump-future-american-policy-asia/.

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