Anxiety and anticipation across Asia as Donald Trump takes reins
After eight years of relative stability under Obama, the region faces uncertainty over how America will wield its power, says Richard Heydarian
Delivering his farewell address in Chicago last week, outgoing US President Barack Obama boastfully declared that if he had told the American people “we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons programme without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11[Osama Bin Laden], you might have said our sights were set a little too high”.
Without a doubt, the Chicago speech was an excruciating moment for the outgoing president, as he prepared to pass the baton to his controversial and divisive successor, Donald Trump, who enters office with one of the lowest trust ratings for a newly elected leader in American history.
Trump’s neo-isolationist rhetoric, tinged with anti-globalisation populism, as well as blatant nativist remarks, which have alienated much of the world’s 1.6 billion strong Muslim community, have rattled both allies and rivals. Many are beginning to wonder whether America will continue to underwrite the liberal international order, as it has done for the past seven decades.
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, Asia and much of the world is anxiously anticipating the potential shift in American foreign policy under Trump. It goes without saying that campaign trail rhetoric doesn’t always translate into actual policy. Yet, it is highly likely the incoming American president may ditch Obama’s diplomatic, multilateralist “pivot to Asia” policy in favour of aggressive unilateralism.
This could undermine the long-established peace and security in the region. Most fundamentally, the incoming administration brings with it greater uncertainty about the future of American power and its role as the self-described anchor of stability and prosperity in Asia.
To be fair, Trump’s victory in the election is welcomed in certain quarters in Asia. On multiple occasions, the Philippines’ tough-talking leader, Rodrigo Duterte, has gone the extra mile to communicate his penchant for Trump, whom he sees as a kindred spirit.
After a cordial phone conversation, Duterte even claimed Trump supported his controversial war on drugs, which drew diplomatic censure from the Obama administration and much of the international community.
To rebuild bilateral communication channels, Duterte presciently appointed Jose Antonio, Trump’s business associate in Manila, as the Philippines’ trade ambassador to Washington. Malaysia’s leader, Najib Razak, a long-time friend of Trump, has also expressed a similar sense of optimism about the incoming American president, who, in turn, has described his Malaysian counterpart as his “favourite prime minister”.
The Indian business elite as well as the Hindu nationalist base of Prime Minster Narendra Modi has also enthusiastically welcomed the election of Trump, who has enjoyed historically strong ties with the Indian-American community.
Elsewhere, however, there are profound anxieties about what a Trump presidency could mean. Over the past few weeks, the president-elect has, mostly through his Twitter account, promised to upend America’s long-standing policies in Asia. He has flirted with the idea of recognising Taiwan as a sovereign nation, in violation of the Shanghai Communiqué, imposing tariffs and other punitive measures on Asian exporters, and abandoning American-led free-trade regimes and military alliance obligations in the region.
Perturbed by Trump’s rhetoric, South Korean leaders held an emergency national security meeting after the shocking electoral outcome in November.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe frantically scrambled to arrange a meeting with Trump shortly after Election Day, hoping against hope to prevent the disintegration of Obama’s Transpacific Partnership Agreement. Yet, the president-elect has vowed to nix the pan-regional trading agreement on his first day in office.
In particular, China has been on the receiving end of Trump’s most pugnacious pronouncements. Accusing the country of engaging in currency manipulation and unfair trade practices, Trump has threatened de facto economic warfare with the world’s second largest economy.
Trump also rattled leaders in Beijing by speaking by phone with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, breaking decades of protocol. No wonder there is worry across the region a crisis could re-emerge with a vengeance in the Taiwan Strait in the coming years.
Trump has also promised a more muscular American naval press in the South China Sea, with his key Asia advisers touting a Reagan-like “peace through strength” military build-up in the region. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has even gone so far as promising to prevent China from accessing and deploying military assets to its reclaimed islands in the disputed waters.
History shows that American presidents tend to implement at least two-thirds of their campaign promises. Given how Trump’s pronouncements are so radically disruptive, fulfilling even a fraction of them would have tremendous implications for America and its foreign policy towards Asia. Trump’s precarious penchant for policy equivocation, not to mention constant self-contradiction and flip-flopping, raises serious concerns of unwanted escalation, if not all-out conflict, in the region.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, London). His forthcoming book is Rise of Duterte (Palgrave, Macmillan).