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Donald Trump

Can Trump strengthen America’s influence in Asia during his visit?

David Shambaugh says the region, an economic powerhouse, is vital to US interests and Trump must win over leaders with reassurances of US commitment. Boorish behaviour will not be tolerated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 4:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 11:19am

As Donald Trump embarks on what the White House describes as the longest visit by a US president to Asia in a quarter of a century (12 days, seven stops, five countries), a very nervous Asia is looking for reassurances of stability and continuity of commitments from him. If Trump sticks to the script – always a huge “if” – prepared by US government staff, countries in the region should be reassured by the outcomes. But if he spontaneously veers off script with provocative language, he could do much damage to regional stability and US interests. Rude behaviour by the president – as he exhibited in Europe earlier this year – will also go down poorly with “face”-conscious Asian leaders and publics.

Despite the symbolically and substantively damaging withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the first days of his presidency, it must be said that the Trump administration has undertaken some gestures to reassure Asia of continued American commitment. Trump began by meeting Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping early in the year, and has remained in close contact with both since.

This was followed by meetings at the White House with the leaders of India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Trump met separately Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on other occasions. This is an impressive record of presidential engagement in just 10 months.

Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in meet in Washington in June 2017

Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis have also visited Asia on several occasions.

This high-level engagement has been particularly noticeable since the summer. During the first half of the year, there was a palpable American absence across the region – creating a strategic vacuum ready to be filled by China. The past few months of stepped-up engagement has helped assuage nervous governments, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Yet, there remain doubts about the overall strategy and staying power of the US towards the region. The Trump visit will be closely scrutinised for signs of US priorities. Will Trump explicitly reaffirm the five core alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand? He is likely to refer to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” region in his speeches, but does this really reflect a change in American strategy? Will he make any commitments to deployments of US military forces in the region?

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What – if anything – will he say about significant human rights transgressions in China, Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines and Thailand? Will he discuss democracy, as all previous American presidents have done? Will he emphasise Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an American priority? Will he speak positively of multilateralism? How outspoken will he be about his “America First” trade and investment agenda? Can the US-China relationship, which steadily haemorrhaged during the Obama administration, be stabilised and improved? What will Trump say about the US-South Korean relationship to reassure Seoul? And perhaps, above all, what will he say about the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threats? Asia awaits answers to these and other pressing questions.

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Trump visits Asia at a time of change and dynamism across the region. Politically, there is relative stability. Not only are Japan’s Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and China’s party general secretary Xi all fresh from recent elections and possessing new political mandates – but in Southeast Asia, Trump will encounter a similar set of well-ensconced leaders.

Economically, the region continues to boom. The gross domestic products of China, Japan and India rank among the top 10 nations in the world, while South Korea, Indonesia and Australia all rank in the top 20. Asian economies account for around 40 per cent of the aggregate global economy, are the primary drivers of international GDP growth and account for one-third of global trade volume.

Asia accounts for 66 per cent of global currency reserves, and about 60 per cent of global capital inflows, around US$150 billion per year. Given this economic dynamism, Asia is vitally important for the United States.

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Demographically, Asia comprises 60 per cent of the world’s population. Eight of the world’s 15 most populated nations are in Asia, including the world’s three-largest Islamic nations. Despite the impressive growth in disposable incomes and standards of living across the region in recent decades, 800 million Asians still live on less than US$1 per day.

Given rising regional tensions, the Indo-Pacific region still looks to America as the primary stabilising force

In terms of security, Asia may be the most militarised region in the world. Asia possesses five of the world’s 10 largest standing armies (China, India, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam), and four nuclear states (China, North Korea, India and Pakistan). Five of the world’s 15 largest defence-spending nations are in Asia. Collectively, regional defence expenditure has increased by more than 60 per cent over the past decade, to US$450 billion in 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reflecting the rising tensions across Northeast, Southeast and South Asia.

The region is bristling with increasingly sophisticated weaponry as almost all militaries are modernising their forces. Given rising regional tensions, the Indo-Pacific region still looks to America as the primary stabilising force.

It will be interesting to see if Trump takes note of these regional realities in his speeches. He is expected to give three public speeches during the trip – at a joint US-Korean military base, to the South Korean national assembly, and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

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Trump inherited from Barack Obama an unprecedentedly strong position for the US in Asia. With its “pivot” policy, the Obama administration prioritised Asia as no previous US administration had – while the Trump administration has yet to “brand” its Asia policy, thus far we see prioritisation for a continued strong and influential American role in Asia.

There remain doubts about the depth of the administration’s understanding of the dynamics at work across Asia

Nonetheless, there remain lingering doubts about America’s and Trump’s commitment to the region, and the depth of the administration’s understanding of the deep dynamics at work across Asia. China, in particular, is seen to be stealing a march on the US – in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and across the Indian Ocean with its “Belt and Road Initiative”.

While we can expect reassuring rhetoric from Trump during his tour, the US needs to substantively increase its engagement with all Asian societies on a continual basis. Periodic “parachute” visits by US presidents and senior officials, giving reassuring speeches, is not enough. Asians have long witnessed this approach from Washington. After Trump departs, only continuing substantive engagement at both governmental and societal levels will suffice to reassure Asia that America can be counted on.

David Shambaugh is Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and co-author of The International Relations of Asia