November 22, 2016 Reading Time: 8 minutes
Anishka De Zylva and Barana Waidyatilake*
This article is for those trying to understand how Donald Trump’s presidency will affect economics, security and governance in Asia, and how Asian governments should prepare themselves for the change in American leadership. We were informed by an enlightening piece on the wider impact of Donald Trump’s win, and wanted to provide a similar but more focused review of recent commentary on Trump’s possible foreign policy in Asia.
We selected ‘six of the best’ from the vast number of comments that have recently been published on this topic. Our review highlights how Trump’s foreign policy will affect Asia as a whole, its major regional actors (China, India and Japan), and smaller regions of interest such as the Korean peninsula and Southeast Asia.
DONALD TRUMP’S PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH VISION FOR THE ASIA-PACIFIC by Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro (Policy Advisors to the Trump Campaign)
Written by Donald Trump’s own campaign advisers, this article offers a rare insider perspective on Trump’s possible policy on Asia.
The authors are sharply critical of the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance’ to Asia, which they portray as militarily weak and thereby a cause of more aggression and instability in the region. They claim that the Trump administration will follow a two-pronged approach in Asia. The first is to avoid “bad trade deals” that “sacrifice the US economy” and its manufacturing base, including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was repeatedly denounced by the Trump campaign.
The second prong of Trump’s policy in Asia, dubbed a Reaganesque strategy of “peace through strength”, is to rebuild America’s military might. This plan would include repealing the defence sequestration and rebuilding the US Navy to a fleet of 350 ships. Gray and Navarro claim that these steps will reassure US allies in Asia, by securing the $5 trillion of annual trade across the South China Sea and containing a rising China. They unhesitatingly blame the Obama administration’s “shrinking small stick” for what they view as China’s increasing militarisation in the region, and its forging of closer ties with previous key allies like the Philippines and Thailand.
Gray and Navarro thereby suggest that the Trump administration would not favour strategic withdrawal from Asia, and may even look to increase US naval presence in the region. However, they also emphasise that US allies in Asia would be expected to contribute more towards supporting this US presence. Just how the President-elect would convince allies such as Japan and South Korea to bear more costs, however, is not addressed.
In his comprehensive overview of Donald Trump’s prospective Asia policy, Prashanth Parameswaran covers four major themes: alliances, multilateralism, economic engagement, and human rights. His key argument is that, despite Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, a closer look at his policy speeches and advisors reveals a more pragmatic streak.
On alliances, Parameswaran argues that Trump’s advisors have actually signalled a commitment to strengthen existing alliances, provided that NATO and Asian allies step up to make greater contributions. Multilateralism might also be embraced insofar as it allows the Trump administration to tackle high-priority security issues like countering terrorism.
The major argument regarding economic engagement is that Trump would seek out what he perceives as ‘better deals’ for the US, with bilateral deals preferred to multilateral ones. Parameswaran does not dismiss the possibility that Trump will raise tariffs with China, but casts doubt that he will engage in an “all-out trade war.”
On human rights, he cites Trump’s skepticism of universal values and suggests that the President-elect would invest less time in promoting long-held US ideals and correspondingly, more time in cooperating with authoritarian states like Russia, both for realist ends and due to his apparent personal affinities.
The author emphasises that much will depend on factors that are still unknown, including the appointed team of advisors (though at least one of whom Parameswaran refers to, Michael Flynn, has already been tapped), the new President’s willingness to listen to those advisors, and the opposition that he is likely to face from domestic and international actors.
The article ends with a reminder that the last US President who attempted a radical departure from mainstream foreign policy, Jimmy Carter, was forced to reverse direction due to stiff opposition. It is suggested that this might be the case for Trump too.
AN EPOCHAL CHANGE: WHAT A TRUMP PRESIDENCY MEANS FOR THE ASIA PACIFIC REGION by Tom Phillips. Justin McCurry, Oliver Holmes, and Vidhi Doshi (Correspondents and freelance journalists for The Guardian)
In this article, the authors provide a country-by-country analysis of Donald Trump’s possible foreign policy in Asia. Their overall prognosis for Asia under a Trump administration is somewhat mixed.
On China, the article points out that Trump’s rejection of the TPP is an opportunity to expand China’s regional influence. Given Trump’s business background, Beijing may also view him as someone they can negotiate with on some issues.
The authors present a worst-case scenario of US withdrawal for Japan and South Korea, prompting both countries to develop nuclear deterrents and spark an arms race in the Asia-Pacific. As a counterpoint, however, they cite the view of Mark Lippert, the American ambassador to South Korea, who expresses confidence that the US – South Korea alliance will remain unchanged. The first meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President-elect Trump, which took place after the publication of this article by Phillips et al, may be an indication that the US – Japan security alliance will remain similarly intact.
On the ASEAN region, the authors argue that Trump’s lack of a clear policy has led Southeast Asian countries to question the US’ commitment to be an effective counterweight to Beijing, with whom several have disputes in the South China Sea. The authors point out that less focus on the South China Sea under a Trump presidency will bolster the more pro-Beijing directions that several ASEAN states have recently taken. India, however, stands to gain in the long-term due to possible ideological convergence with the Trump administration over the issue of radical Islam.
TRUMP’S TO-DO LIST IN ASIA by William Pesek (Barron’s Asia)
For the purposes of this article, author William Pesek assumes the role of foreign policy advisor to President-elect Trump, and illustrates how he could change his negative rhetoric on Asia into opportunities for the US.
Pesek’s article covers China, the TPP, Japan, Southeast Asia, and the region in general, and offers policy recommendations for each. He uses catchphrases to describe these recommendations, which are collectively described as Trump’s “to-do list”. Hence the author suggests: (1) hitting the restart button with China; (2) rethinking the TPP; (3) showing “tough love” to Japan; (4) engaging Southeast Asia; (5) and hanging up an “open-for-business” sign in Asia.
This article offers several fresh and specific ideas on Trump and Asia, though other commentators may question the feasibility of one or more of these ideas.
For example, in relation to the TPP, Pesek advocates including China and India in the TPP, instead of terminating the proposed deal. This would be a way for the US to counter the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which involves China and India. On Japan, Pesek suggests that Trump should change his rhetoric from one that emphasises paying for protection, to one that urges Japan to implement pro-growth reforms.
Lastly, Pesek suggests presenting the US as a country that is “open-for-business” in Asia, to diffuse the negative rhetoric that was repeated by Trump throughout the election campaign, and to maintain US access to growing Asian markets.
The author concludes by recognising that some of his suggestions could be dismissed as ‘wishful thinking.’ He reiterates, however, that the US cannot afford to antagonise the several billion inhabitants of a region that is rapidly changing and growing.
HOW SHOULD NEW DELHI READ THE DONALD IN WHITE HOUSE by C. Raja Mohan (Director, Carnegie India, New Delhi)
This article focuses on the economic and geopolitical ramifications of a Trump administration for India and correspondingly, how Indian policymakers should prepare for a Trump presidency.
In the author’s view, the “historic structural shift in the internal and external orientation of US” promised by the President-elect will require nothing less than a “sweeping re-imagination of India’s national strategy.”
The author explains that Trump’s electoral success can be attributed to his successful mobilisation of three sources of popular discontent, all of which were largely ignored by the American political establishment: (1) growing economic inequalities; (2) globalisation, including US policies on trade and immigration; and, (3) international obligations and burdens of the US, especially with regard to security.
Raja Mohan emphasises that, in tackling these issues, Trump has “laid out a different direction for America” and even a little movement along this path will have significant economic and political consequences for other nations.
In this context, Raja Mohan highlights new geopolitical opportunities for India under the new US President, albeit while recognising the looming economic challenges. He advises India to move away from “accusations of protectionism against the US” and rethink a mutually beneficial partnership that has sustainable base of support in both countries. Trump’ s reconsideration of the US’ security presence and burdens in the region presents India with an opportunity to become a “leading element in the regional balance of power system” and construct a strong Eurasian coalition”.
The author stops short of addressing the question of how China and India’s immediate neighbours might respond to these possible steps.
DONALD TRUMP COULD PUT CLIMATE CHANGE ON COURSE FOR ‘DANGER ZONE by Coral Davenport (The New York Times)
Coral Davenport examines the extent to which the administration of incoming US President Donald Trump could disrupt progress made in combating climate change, both nationally and internationally. Davenport’s perspective is also particularly pertinent to an Asian audience as she addresses the implications of Trump’s rhetoric and possible policies on Asia, and especially on China and India.
The author explains that although President-elect Trump cannot block other countries from fulfilling their commitments to the Paris Agreement, he can choose not to implement commitments made by the US, which would be consistent with his campaign promises to ‘cancel’ the agreement.
She observes that US withdrawal from the Paris accord may have an unfortunate domino effect, encouraging others – including India – to follow suit. India has stated that its contributions to the Paris Agreement will depend on financial support from developed countries, a prospect that Davenport notes looks much bleaker with the ascent of Trump.
As a contrast to India, however, China – the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter – may now emerge as a global leader on tackling climate change. For example, Davenport states that China will continue to implement its plans to cut carbon emissions, irrespective of what Mr. Trump does. She cites the view of Chai Qimin, a Chinese climate negotiator, that “tackling climate change is not something anybody asks [China] to do” but rather, what it wants to do.
*Research Associate and Research Fellow at LKI.
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the authors. They are not the institutional views of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the authors are affiliated.