What would a Donald Trump presidency mean for US trade and diplomacy within Asia?
Brash views on Asia could have big implications for relations between the region and the United States – providing the billionaire property tycoon makes it all the way to the White House.
China is ripping off America in trade and should be slapped with a fat import tax. US military allies Japan and South Korea are freeloading and need to pull their weight. The Trans-Pacific trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration is a “total disaster”.
With characteristic brashness, Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump has staked out uncompromising positions on Asia policy that could potentially roil US relations with the region if he won the White House.
That’s already prompted some sharp commentary fro usually friendly countries in Asia, and expressions of contempt from Republican foreign policy hands who have vowed to oppose Trump.
Presidential hopefuls of both parties typically talk tough on China because of America’s yawning trade deficit and the migration of US manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labour. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee who lost the 2012 election, had vowed to declare China a currency manipulator on day one in office.
Trump is making the same threat, but also proposing a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports into the US.
And as the business mogul vows to “Make America Great Again!” he’s poking a stick elsewhere in Asia.
He has accused India and Vietnam, which have pulled closer to the US as China’s might has grown, of taking American jobs.
And Trump is questioning what the US gets out of its decades old security alliances with Japan and South Korea, which host 80,000 US forces – the backbone of the US military presence in Asia.
“If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, okay? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair,” Trump said on the stump in South Carolina December 30.
Trump also asserts that Japan and South Korea should pay for US military protection, but overlooks that they already pay about half the cost of stationing US forces on their soil.
In Washington, more than 70 Republican national security experts have signed an open letter condemning Trump, saying his insistence on close allies like Japan paying vast sums for protection, “is the sentiment of a racketeer, not the leader of alliances that have served us so well since World War II”.
Asian commentators have responded to Trump’s rise with a combination of puzzlement and anxiety.
“US politics is in disarray,” lamented the Nikkei newspaper in an editorial after Trump took an important step toward clinching the Republican nomination to contest the November election when he won seven states in “Super Tuesday” primaries. “Japan has taken for granted US leadership in international politics. How are we supposed to face this situation?” it asked.
A commentary in South Korea’s Dong-a-Ilbo newspaper said Seoul needs to start preparing for the possibility of a Trump presidency, which could kick the US economy back into a recession by employing protectionist trade policies.
On foreign policy, Trump is best known for promising to build a wall to stop illegal migration into the US from Mexico, and for proposing a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, which inflamed sentiments in the Muslim world. But on the campaign trail, he has also highlighted the need to reform US trade relationships in Asia to bring jobs back to America.
“I’ve not heard Trump criticised for that so much as his general super nationalism. That aspect bothers people,” said Richard Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, who has been watching the reaction in Asia.
Should Trump win the nomination, he would likely face Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats. When she was secretary of state, Clinton led the Obama administration’s outreach to Asia’s fast-growing economies – although as a candidate she has come against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal that she once extolled.
Trump also opposes the TPP that he says would ultimately benefit China, although it is not among the 12 nations currently taking part.
In a Republican debate last week he called the agreement “a total disaster”, primarily because it doesn’t address currency manipulation. He blames undervalued currencies for trade imbalances with Japan, China and other countries.
Trump says that the sheer volume of US-China trade gives Washington leverage over Beijing, although he exaggerates the size of imbalance. For years China was widely regarded as having undervalued its currency to help its exporters, but the yuan appreciated significantly against the dollar after 2010. Market forces appear to have played a greater role in a more recent depreciation in its value.
Trump also sees the imposition of tariffs as a way to get Beijing to put pressure on its erstwhile ally North Korea to stop nuclear brinkmanship.
“I mean, you’ve got this madman playing around with the nukes and it has to end and China has to do it,” he told Fox News January 8, referring to the unpredictable North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But while he slams China’s commercial practices and resolves to boost the US military presence in the disputed East and South China Seas to check Chinese “adventurism,” Trump gives backhanded compliments to Beijing’s leaders as being smarter than Washington’s. He has likened them to Super Bowl winners competing against a high school football team.
“I love China,” Trump said at the January 14 Republican debate. “I love the Chinese people but they laugh themselves, they can’t believe how stupid the American leadership is.”
TRUMP ON ASIA:
“I mean, you’ve got this madman playing around with the nukes and it has to end and China has to do it. Now we have power over China because of trade, because they suck us dry, they take our money, they take our jobs, they take our everything, we lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year with China on trade. So, frankly if we ever stopped it [trade with China], believe me you’d see depression in China like you had never seen a depression before.” – Fox News Interview, January 7, 2016
“If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, okay? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair. Does that sound good?” – Campaign speech in Hilton Head, South Carolina, December 30, 2015
“We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman [Kim Jong-un] and them. We get practically nothing compared to the cost for this.” – NBC “Meet the Press” interview, January 10, 2016
“I’m going to bring jobs back from China. I’m going to bring jobs back from Mexico and from Japan, where they’re all – every country throughout the world – now Vietnam, that’s the new one. They are taking our jobs. They are taking our wealth.” – Republican debate, February 3, 2016
“The deal is insanity. That deal should not be supported and it should not be allowed to happen ... We are giving away what ultimately is going to be a back door for China. China will take advantage of it — all the weak points in it, more than anybody else.” – Breitbart News interview, November 9, 2016