After a drawn-out campaign replete with bold diplomatic promises and mixed messaging, Donald Trump has been named the president-elect. For some, his victory in the presidential election – if not in securing the popular vote – is a repudiation of the brand of American interventionism that Hillary Clinton has advocated, and an indication that Americans have soured on globalism since the Cold War. With Barack Obama’s foreign policy now on the chopping block, Asia watchers have quite a task ahead in parsing the bromides, platitudes, and threats related to America’s role in the Pacific that Trump brandished so effectively during his candidacy.
Among those promises was a pledge to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) trade agreement that President Obama has championed for years as the keystone of his pivot to Asia. TPP has come under criticism at home and abroad for being too convoluted to be called an effective trade deal, but advocates counter that its multilateral framework provides the United States with a new paradigm for regional leadership. Not only does TPP promote stability through shared economic and environmental standards, the thinking goes, but it also provides an alternative to Chinese influence in Asia as several nations look to distance themselves from Beijing.
Trump’s rejection of TPP is rooted in the assumption that the United States has more leverage to negotiate favorable bilateral deals, which in aggregate may benefit the domestic economy more than one multilateral agreement. That may not be a bad read of the circumstances, but it fails to appreciate the additional dimensions of a multilateral deal from which the United States stands to gain. China’s leaders are understandably intrigued by the prospects of an American abdication of leadership in regional economic affairs, and withdrawal from TPP would be more easily accomplished than Trump’s other campaign promises. His proposal for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports, however threatening, would require unlikely support from Congress, but the president-elect could singlehandedly end American participation in TPP negotiations on his first day in office.
Perhaps none are more dismayed by the failure of TPP than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who has made it the pretext for implementing a slate of unpopular structural reforms. Calling the multilateral agreement “meaningless” without the United States’ participation, Abe has signaled that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, with China at the helm, will become the foundation for trade in the Pacific. But trading Trump’s Washington for Xi’s Beijing is not an ideal scenario for Abe or for several other Asian leaders. ASEAN members Vietnam and Malaysia, for example, belong to both agreements, but have chilled toward China as territorial disputes have persisted.
If Trump’s messaging on Pacific regional security is to be believed – though there’s no reason it should be – the United States will take a more transactional approach to military presence than it has in the past. Whether unaware of the proactive posturing required of the United States’ armed forces in maintaining territorial balance, or merely indifferent, Trump could easily leave the door open for Chinese naval expansion into coveted, more distant waters.
The absenteeism of a Trump White House, then, presents Beijing with a pair of prizes, each within reach but opposed to the other. RCEP and regional economic hegemony are all but assured with the failure of TPP, but member nations will be wary of an emboldened Chinese military that threatens their claims on disputed territories. The successful ratification of RCEP may take a light touch from China, ensuring that territorial adversaries like Vietnam and Malaysia remain at the table. Testing Trump’s interest, or his attention span, with moves into previously protected areas could be successful, but it would jeopardize relations with regional partners.
Beijing may have found a blueprint for compromise in the meantime. Dr. Wu Shicun, who heads the state-run National Institute for South China Sea Studies, has hinted at an agreement that would allow Philippine fishing boats to enter the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China’s claim to the territory was damaged in July, when a tribunal at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines. Change in policy, though, only followed a visit to Beijing by President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been vocal in his criticism for the United States, and who strongly favors RCEP for the Philippines. A fishing treaty with Duterte maintains Chinese dominance of the territorial issue, while securing support for a trade agreement.
There remains a chance that the Trump administration will take an aggressive stance in Asia, in which case Beijing will need to rethink its strategy. The president-elect’s choice for the position of Secretary of State will speak to his intentions around the world, not just in Asia; tapping Rudy Giuliani would be a radical, full embrace of hardline isolationism, while Mitt Romney would preserve hope for continuity and competence at the State Department. As the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Romney had blunt words for China, but he still represents the more prudent, thoughtful wing of the GOP.
More influential than perhaps even the Secretary of State will be the top-level advisors that President-elect Trump surrounds himself with. So far, the list of candidates for advisory and cabinet positions has been unusually heavy on military men, many of whom had fallen out of favor with the Obama administration. While Trump’s affinity for generals might suggest an aggressive foreign policy, the majority of his picks, including National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, cut their teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan. They may have little interest in what happens in the South China Sea.
China will now be watching for how Trump makes his foreign policy decisions. A conventional pick for Secretary of State like Mitt Romney could be all posturing if Trump defaults to his National Security Council on key issues. A bevy of generals in his advisory staff might further complicate things by reducing the threshold for military response. Beijing’s best-case scenario for a Trump presidency would be a disinterested commander-in-chief, backed by a State Department bureaucracy to keep America’s foreign policy apparatus quietly humming.