The surprising electionof Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon and controversial celebrity, has raised questions about the future of American foreign policy in Asia. For the first in American history, the nation has elected a president with no prior experience in political office. Some would even go further, arguing that Trump is America’s first successful populist candidate.
The president-elect’s neo-isolationist rhetoric, drenched in anti-trade and anti-immigration tirades, as well as often blatant nativist remarks, have startled both friends and foes that are beginning to wonder whether Washington will continue to undergird the international liberal order as it has since the end of World War II.
Without a question, it is still too early to predict the exact trajectory of Trump’s actual policy in office, given his penchant for policy equivocation and tendency for self-contradiction. There is always the possibility that his rhetoric may ultimately not translate into actual policy. Since his election victory, for instance, he has already softened his position on certain key campaign issues, including the threat to prosecute his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, for alleged abuse of office.
Nonetheless, Trump is largely seen as a predictably unpredictable leader. To many in Asia, he is seen more of a complete political mystery, especially when compared to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has had extensive exchanges in various political capacities with Asian leaders. As a result, the America-led order in Asia is confronting a gnawing sense of uncertainty in a period of potentially game-changing power transition.
Sensing a strategic opening, rivals such as China have step up to the plate, presenting themselves as an alternative and more reliable anchor of regional stability. This was most evident during the latest edition of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his country as the new vanguard of economic globalization.
To be fair, while Trump’s victory was largely unexpected, responses across Asia weren’t uniform. On one hand, key allies in Northeast Asia were visibly perturbed. In Seoul, the cornerstone of Washington’s alliance structure in Asia, South Korean leaders immediately held emergency national security meeting once it became clear that Trump was poised to become the 45th American president.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who confidently expected a Clinton victory, frantically scrambled to secure a meeting with the President-Elect. Expending much of his political capital to get Japan ready for the American-led Transpacific Partnership Agreement, Abe sought to convince Trump to drop his opposition to the deal.
Eager to avoid unnecessary panic among Washington’s closest Asian allies, Trump held talks with both Japanese and South Korea leaders, reassuring them of America’s continued commitment to existing bilateral security alliances. The meeting with Abe helped both leaders to build some element of rapport.
In India, the business community and increasingly influential Hindu nationalists, who are close to the ruling government of Prime Minster Narendra Modi, welcomed the election of Trump, who has enjoyed close ties with the New Delhi elite for years.
Astonishingly, the Philippines’ tough-talking leader, Rodrigo Duterte, went the extra mile to telegraph his intention to rebuild recently frayed ties with America under a Trump presidency. Shortly before the American elections, Duterte presciently appointed Trump’s business associate in Manila, Jose Antonio, as a special envoy to Washington.
The Duterte administration is hopeful that Trump will be less tough on human rights and democracy issues, particularly Manila’s controversial war on drugs campaign that has been vigorously criticized by the outgoing Obama administration. Malaysia’s troubled leader Najib Razak, who similarly to Duterte signaled his own ‘pivot to China,’ is also looking forward to restored relations with America under Trump, a longtime friend who is said to have described the Malaysian leader as his “favorite prime minister”.
For China, Trump presents both opportunities and threats. On one hand, it is worried that Trump will follow the long-established trend of military assertiveness under Republican presidents. If anything, Trump’s foreign policy advisers have communicated a Reagan-style ‘peace through strength’ American military build up in the region, particularly in flashpoints such as the South China Sea, to rein in Chinese maritime assertiveness.
Also, Trump’s ‘America First’ dictum has been accompanied by repeated threats to impose heavy tariffs on Chinese goods, not to mention the threat of officially classifying China as a currency manipulator. This could lead to trade wars, which may end up as a lose-lose situation for both sides, but inflict huge damage on China’s (still largely) trade-dependent economy.
But there are also opportunities for China. Doubts over Trump’s temperament, judgment, experience, and commitment to the global order could encourage a growing number of Asian nations to reconsider their relations with Washington in favor of Beijing. Trump’s promise to nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the centerpiece of Obama’s economic pivot to the region, has already deeply disappointed major regional allies, particularly Singapore, Japan, and Malaysia.
Japanese leader, Abe, has openly lamented Trump’s threat against the ambitious trade deal, which aims to radically overhaul inefficient sectors of regional economies, open up new market and investment opportunities among them, and, above all, limit China’s burgeoning economic primacy in the Asia-Pacific theatre. For Abe, "TPP without the United States would be meaningless," since it is “impossible to renegotiate it, and it would destabilize the basic balance of interests.”
During the latest APEC summit, outgoing President Barack Obama spent most of his time reassuring the world about his successor at the expense of ensuring the full operationalization of his increasingly enervated Pivot to Asia policy. This provided a perfect opening for China to step up to the plate, as traditional U.S. allies, including the Philippines, lined up for bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi, who openly warned against ‘isolationism and exclusiveness’ amid rising anti-globalization populism in America.
More concretely, Xi advocated alternative regional trading regimes, namely the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Free Trade Area for the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). Both RCEP and FTAAP are largely seen as Beijing-led economic initiatives aimed at consolidating a disparate spaghetti bowl of free trade agreements among regional economies. Without the TPP, America risks greater economic irrelevance in a region where China isn’t only the top trading partner of almost all nations but also increasingly a premiere source of infrastructure and manufacturing investments.
The incoming Trump administration will have to deal with this fluid, competitive and uncertain strategic landscape, which demands patience, commitment and depth of understanding. This is why it is extremely crucial for the president-elect to assemble a competent and established group of Asia advisers, who could nudge Trump towards a calibrated balance between necessary change and indispensable continuity.
Whether we are going to see a pragmatic “Art of the Deal” Trump or a more aggressive and demagogic version, which was prominent during the election campaign, many expect that Obama’s successor will be less committed to enmesh itself in the plethora of multilateral regional institutions, which collectively undergird the Asian security architecture.
The Trump administration faces an uphill battle to reassure allies in the region that America will continue to preserve and provide public international goods in the region, stand strong with its allies, and deepen its economic engagement with Asia. Otherwise, America risks permanently losing its strategic foothold in the world’s new center of economic and geopolitical gravity.