Will Asia disappear from the US radar under Trump?
Derwin Pereira says among the president-elect’s foreign policy priorities, US connections to Asia appear the most tenuous, and a shift away from the region would benefit China
The stunning victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the American presidential election threatens Asian countries with strategic abandonment by the United States. Instead, Europe and its relations with Russia could return to the centre of American foreign policy. If that were to be the case, China would benefit most in Asia from the Trump presidency.
Trump’s desire for strategic rapprochement with Russia formed a core theme of his foreign policy pronouncements during his presidential campaign. Most directly, those touched on Syria, where he would appear to be willing to accept Moscow’s role in supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against rebels, including the nefarious Islamic State.
More broadly, Trump is sceptical of Nato’s contribution to American security. He displayed his concerns by dropping hints that the US might no longer defend its Nato allies unless they paid their way. European nations looking warily at an increasingly assertive Russia were disheartened by his stance.
However, Europe could rededicate itself to Nato in order to keep the US anchored in the continent. The transatlantic security alliance is a multilateral institution that has stood the test of time since the end of the second world war. It is the most potent diplomatic weapon that the United States possesses in dealing with Russia. Hence, it is inconceivable that even as radical an American leader as Trump would scuttle it, thereby losing the leverage that he would possess against Russia one day – no matter how much he might admire President Vladimir Putin personally today.
Europe itself will need America more as its own fissures come to the fore. Brexit will mean the departure of a major economic power from the European Union. Elections in Germany and France next year could loosen the union further. The strain of debt relief for Greece would add to the centrifugal forces in Europe. A weakened Europe would turn to the US, with which it has strong historical and cultural links, for a sustainable identity in an uncertain world.
Essentially, therefore, with or without a friendly connection to Russia, American relations with Europe will remain important to the Trump presidency.
That is not the case with Asia. There is no treaty organisation that binds America to Asian nations collectively. Instead, the US has bilateral treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, but these do not give it a stake in Asia as a whole, or in Asian nations’ relations with China.
Admittedly, the Asean Regional Forum seeks to anchor the US in Asia, but it extends the same courtesy to a host of other extra-regional countries which have divergent, if not contradictory, strategic compulsions. The forum simply cannot be compared with Nato. In its absence, there is no structural compulsion for the US to remain engaged in Asia. It can pick and choose – and drop – its partners at will.
This is why China could hold the Asian trump card against the US in the next few years. Beijing will be gratified by the changing direction of American foreign policy. If Trump stays true to his declared intent of scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact, it would undo an economic coalition of 12 substantial economies, seven of which are from the Asia-Pacific. Although the agreement, which does not include China, is committed to the advancement of free trade, it has also been seen as a way to contain China’s expansive economic energies in the region. The implosion of the TPP would allow Beijing to continue deepening its economic ties bilaterally and multilaterally in the Asia-Pacific. An existing template for this is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which it has sponsored.
On the security front, the American pivot to the Asia-Pacific is likely to disappear, if not with a bang then a series of whimpers. The pivot, the brainchild of defeated Democratic contender Hillary Clinton and her team when she was secretary of state, represents precisely the kind of American engagement with the rest of the world that Trump seems determined to reverse. Since the pivot is not a treaty but a set of military arrangements with America’s Asian allies and other security partners, its disappearance would not cause diplomatic convulsions, as would the effective dissolution of Nato.
However, American strategic retrenchment would open the door to an even more assertive China. Its posture is evident already in the South China Sea, and has been registered duly in the Philippines and Malaysia. The two countries, which are among the four claimants from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the dispute, have veered towards China for a combination of economic and political reasons.
The other two Asean claimants are Brunei and Vietnam. It is a matter of time before Hanoi, a significant regional military power, reassesses its ties with Beijing in light of the strategic ambiguity that Trump’s victory has introduced into the Asia-Pacific security landscape.
Already, his astonishing comment during the campaign, that he was prepared to live with a nuclear Japan, raised doubts over whether he understood – or cared for – what the arrival of a nuclear Japan would signify for the Asian balance of power. This is so, particularly because that Japan would not depend as much as it does now on the security guarantee provided by the US umbrella. The strategic unpacking of Pax Americana in Asia would begin.
Of course, the realities of the presidency might change Trump’s mind on the Asia-Pacific. He might even be persuaded by colleagues to see the TPP and the pivot as investments which help America’s power and influence in the long run.
Until then, however, America’s Atlantic connections appear safer than its Pacific links from abrupt change under the Trump presidency.
Derwin Pereira heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs