Opinion: China the winner as Donald Trump ushers in steady US decline

Twelve months into his presidency, Trump has made the US increasingly isolated, with Asia wary of its claims to uphold stability in the region, writes Richard Heydarian

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 12:00pm

One year into Donald Trump’s US presidency, the global superpower is at once more isolated and aggressive than anytime in recent memory.

The country is simultaneously dealing with a government shutdown, leadership sclerosis, a growing international backlash and increasingly serious challenges from chief rivals, particularly China. The upshot is a dramatic collapse in Washington’s global standing, paving the way for a truly post-American order.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration has made it clear its key strategic priority will no longer be international terrorism, but instead China and, to a far lesser degree, Russia.

In short, a declining America has announced the re-emergence of great power rivalry as a pillar of its defence policy.

A careful look at Trump’s first year in office shows that, quite paradoxically, America is simultaneously both on inward retreat as well as a forward march across Asia.

Economically, Washington has failed to place a single meaningful economic initiative on the table, while threatening to renegotiate existing trade agreements with key allies such as South Korea.

Within a single year, Trump’s anti-globalisation stance and open disdain for international trading regimes has managed to undermine American century-old commitments to the international liberal order.

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In contrast, China continues to overwhelm its neighbours with a plethora of multilateral as well as bilateral economic projects, which could alter Asia’s geo-economics in Beijing’s image.

America also continues to be bogged down by domestic political crises. President Donald Trump marked his first anniversary in power with the first federal government shutdown under a one-party-ruled Congress. For someone who has taken pride in his supposedly uncanny negotiating prowess, this is nothing short of epic political embarrassment.

With a 40 per cent approval rating, Trump suffers from the lowest rating for any American leader at this point in their presidency. As many as 70 per cent of Americans believe that their president has not behaved in a manner befitting his office.

Up to two-thirds of Americans have questioned his constant reliance on social media, particular Twitter, for policy and personal pronouncements. The implication is that the American president has limited political capital to bring warring factions together under a unified national vision.

More broadly, domestic political mayhem is increasingly becoming a norm, rather than an aberration, in America. The ongoing investigations into Trump’s inner circles’ alleged electoral collusion with Russia is going to only deepen the country’s political tumult in coming months.

Overseas, allies and strategic partners have begun to lose confidence in the US. According to an authoritative survey by the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, as many as 72 per cent of Southeast Asians believe that Trump’s presidency has chipped away at the country’s reliability as an anchor of stability in the region.

Up to 51 per cent believe that China has been the biggest beneficiary of America’s decline, while three-quarters of respondents identified China as the most influential actor in the region.

Yet, like a wounded beast, America has stepped up its military footprint in the region.

Under Trump, the Pentagon has expanded its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea with the aim of directly challenging China’s claims in the area.

The American defence establishment has also stepped up its preparations for all-out war with North Korea, especially in light of tit-for-tat provocative exchanges between the leaderships in Washington and Pyongyang.

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In its first ever National Security Strategy, the Trump administration has identified, in quite vivid language, China as a direct “challenge [to] American power, influence, and interests”, accusing the Asian powerhouse of seeking to “erode American security and prosperity”.

It accuses China of “steal[ing] US intellectual property valued at hundreds of billions

of dollars”, with Trump dangling the option of imposing sanctions against the world’s largest exporting nation in recent weeks.

Far from embracing China’s multilateral economic initiatives, it accuses China of “using economic inducements” to “persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda”.

The same strident language is apparent in the Pentagon’s newly-released National Defence Strategy, which identifies China as a principal priority and “a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising”.

These documents show an American world view which is highly divorced from the more cordial days of great power competition contemplated by Xi Jinping and Barack Obama during the Sunnylands summit in 2013.

In Washington, conflict and confrontation has replaced the language of cooperation and engagement regarding China. If anything, the Trump administration is intent on soliciting the support of other major Indo-Pacific powers, namely Japan, India and Australia, to constrain China’s rise as the pre-eminent actor in the region.

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Yet, it is far from clear whether America has sufficient influence and wherewithal to keep China’s real and imagined ambitions in check. A growing number of countries across Asia have gradually embraced strategic fatalism, believing that the region is ineluctably heading towards a Beijing-led order.

For them, instead of confronting China, they are more interested in graceful accommodation with the new regional superpower. As far as America’s global leadership is concerned, the writing is on the wall.

Barring a major reorientation in Washington’s domestic and foreign policy, the country is headed for an irreversible decline in its international standing, particularly in Asia. And rivals such as China are scrambling to fill in the leadership vacuum.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author