Trump’s Asia visit was ripe with opportunities for mending political ties and reinstating credibility in the US leadership. Instead, President Trump used the platform to push through his election winning agenda of “America First”.
US President Donald Trump’s recent 12 day, five-nation Asia visit came at a time when most of the Asian leaders are anxious about Washington’s level of commitment to the region. The anxiety runs deep especially since the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and often repeated threats of withdrawing from existing security and economic arrangements. Moreover, after the exchange of fiery statements with the North Korean dictator, President Trump’s visit had raised concerns regarding exacerbation of the conflict in an already volatile region. Although Trump resisted tweeting inflammatory statements during his stay, the lack of substantive policy approach was eminent in the contradictions Trump displayed in his conduct. While he lashed out at countries in the region for unfair trading practices, he sought to forge an anti-North Korean coalition with the same.
The Southeast Asian countries have traditionally sought an expanded US role primarily to balance China. And in the face of growing Chinese economic power and assertion over South China Sea dispute, deeper US engagement is more than welcome. Therefore, Trump’s Asia visit was ripe with opportunities for mending political ties and reinstating credibility in the US leadership. Instead, President Trump used the platform to push through his election winning agenda of “America First”. In his first speech at the APEC summit, Trump declared that the United States would no more be taken advantage of and was open to bilateral trade with only any country that would abide by fair trade practices. What was more upsetting to the countries at the APEC summit was the US aversion to multilateral agreements and free trade which previous US administrations had vigorously pushed in the region. In the absence of any coherent policy formulation, the prime takeaway from Trump’s visit is indication towards America’s retreat from Southeast Asian strategic space. During his stay, Trump emphasised primarily upon the US economic concerns which may be counted as a win at the domestic front. But this transactional approach to foreign relations may further alienate the US allies who do not submit to Trump’s approach either in form or content.
In the absence of any coherent policy formulation, the prime takeaway from Trump’s visit is indication towards America’s retreat from Southeast Asian strategic space.
The welcome President Trump received from his host Asian countries was unprecedented. The most surprising was China rolling out red carpet to the President who until recently had been threatening to label China as a currency manipulator. Trump being highly flattered not only praised the Chinese Premier for securing a great political victory but he also asked President Xi Jingping to “solve the North Korea problem” for him.
Political commentators argue such statements to be part of soft rhetoric. However, they are also portent of the unfolding geopolitical realities. The problem lies in ceding political space to China in a region where it is most assertive. At the APEC summit where Trump chose to admonish US allies, China talked about innovation, digital economy and free trade agreements for developing economies, setting the tone for multilateral discussions. This may also be indicative of gradual role reversal occurring at the international forum where in contrast to Trump’s projected apathy for international structures and norm based politics, China is pushing for more institutional arrangements. Amidst fears of China trying to recreate the hub and spoke the system with its massive infrastructural project OBOR, Trump’s disengaged stance on Asia will further strengthen China’s claim to leadership.
There are three broad consequences of President Trump’s “America First” approach. First, it holds the inherent danger of equating rhetoric with strategy and may finally culminate into America being alone. The approach intends to draw the US back to its continental shell which might be fatal to Trump’s ambition of making America great again. The signatory countries of the TPP, like Japan and Peru, have already demonstrated enough willingness of going ahead without the US and a meeting at Tokyo was convened shortly before the Trump’s visit. While the Trump administration is pushing to redefine terms of trade in America’s favour and has pinned it hope to fast bilateral negotiations, his advisors seem to have missed upon an essential component in the Asian psyche, that is the necessity of political trust in bilateral bargain, failing which the prospects of bilateral trade is also bleak.
Second, on one hand Trump is rapidly moving to limit the US’ economic dealings with the region, on other hand he has also promised to increase the US military deployment as token of its strategic presence. However, the absence of a robust economic agenda precludes any attempt of the strategic presence. And not only is he leaving China to take economic leadership in the region, he is also losing essential tools to defend the needs of America First. Moreover, the danger of projecting power solely through military means is that it leads to increasing organisational costs while diminishing the strategic returns, for the US will be deprived of its major strategic edge of playing a constabulary role as a superpower.
The third consequence that follows is the complete change in the rules of the game because of the US failure to play its traditional role. The point to note is the increased US reliance upon China to rein in North Korea, exhibiting an explicit recognition of China being the undisputed troubleshooter in the region. This recognition will provide China an added leverage in its dealings with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam who lie within North Korea’s missile range. In this context, smaller Southeast Asian countries might drift towards China’s orbit as a matter of necessity leading to an undesirable balance of power exposing US interests in the region, vulnerable to both China’s rising power and a nuclear North Korea. The erratic leadership evinced by President Trump only confirms to increasing apprehensions about waning US influence in Southeast Asia.
North Korea is not rolling back its nuclear programme any time soon and is acquiring nuclear capability with enhanced precision. And despite all the flattery, China has also resisted the US pressure on taking a stronger stance upon North Korea. Therefore, this radical shift from internationalism to isolation might not be the best recipe for American success.
The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).