November 11, 2016 6:18 pm JST
Richard McGregor

Trump's Asian 'big bang' could upend region's diplomacy

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president is the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb, an explosion that not only destroys the immediate environment but also scatters radioactive fallout far away, with damage that can last for years.

Most of the impact will be initially felt at home, in the U.S., but the damage to America's standing and interests in the Asia-Pacific is clear. On the economy, Trump has long been antagonistic towards Japan, starting from the trade wars of the 1980s. More recently, he has threatened to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and has said the U.S. Treasury should immediately declare Beijing a currency manipulator.

On national security, Trump has singled out Japan and South Korea, and European nations in NATO, for freeloading on the U.S., vowing that they will pay a greater share of the cost of American troops on their soil. He has displayed indifference to blowing up the postwar status quo, and allowing Japan and South Korea to go nuclear.

On the campaign trail, Trump seemed oblivious to the fact that the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has passed laws to allow its military forces to fight alongside the U.S. Rather, he repeated the same line he used in the 1980s, that the U.S. had to defend Japan if it came under attack but Japan had no obligations in reverse.

All of this is consistent with views Trump has espoused for decades. He is anti-free trade, suspicious of globalization and unconvinced about Washington's role as the prime security guarantor in places far from the homeland, in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In all three areas, he believes that the U.S. gets a raw deal.

The most damaging impact to Pax Americana in the Asia-Pacific, though, might be in the longer-term fallout rather than the immediate explosions that we are witnessing now.

For all of the dramatic cycles of U.S. domestic and diplomatic politics in the postwar era, thought the Korean and Vietnam wars, Watergate, the strategic drift of the early years of Bill Clinton's presidency, the disastrous second Iraq War and the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. has always displayed a capacity to renew itself, and its global standing, through good presidents and bad.

The U.S. remains the world's largest economy by some distance. It still has military and intelligence assets spread throughout the Asia-Pacific, from South Korea down to Australia. In the short-term, Trump can do little to change that, even if he wanted to do.

On top of its hard assets, America also has had huge appeal through its soft power, as an open, vibrant and creative society with intangible ingredients of success that foreigners would love to be able to emulate.

Battle of the hegemons

With or without Trump, the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific is in the midst of huge change. Long before the U.S. election, regional nations were increasingly feeling squeezed between the superpower they have long been comfortable with, the U.S., and its rising rival, China, which wants to ultimately like to replace it as the regional hegemon.

No nation in the region wants to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China. Nearly all would like both of these superpowers to co-exist and co-operate in a way that benefits all.

Trump, an unpredictable narcissist with zero governing experience, has the capacity to upend that equation in ways which will run down Washington's established position and elevate China's standing. In the process, nations which are already hedging their bets will start instinctively to lean towards Beijing.

Much depends, of course, on how Trump performs in office, the advisers he surrounds himself with and how he responds to the unforeseen events that happen on his watch. The performance of the domestic economy, which is the prime barometer of U.S. strength and durability, will also have an impact on his foreign policy. Without a strong economy, the military budget will wither.

How China responds to Trump will also be a factor.

Thus far, Beijing has been conflicted over Trump. On the one hand, the ruling communist party has been delighted by the never-ending crude democratic spectacle of the election, as it buttresses its own propaganda that the ugly U.S. system is not a good governing model.

If a barbarian like Trump can be elected, the Chinese argue, what does that say about democracy overall? They say their system trains up-and-coming leaders over many years, tests them in a variety of governing positions and then promotes them on merit. In Chinese eyes, the idea that a candidate can come from outside politics to win the presidency is ridiculous.

But Beijing's distaste for democracy didn't necessarily translate into support for a Trump win. China would prefer that the U.S. declines gently and gradually as a regional power, with a whimper, not a bang, as Beijing will not be ready to take its place for many years yet.

In that respect, Trump could be a harbinger of instability, which is what Beijing likes least of all. Better then the devil-you-know in the form of Hillary Clinton.

Recalibration

In some scenarios, regional leaders outside of China leaders could warm to Trump. Long an aficionado of strongmen leaders, he is unlikely to care about human rights abuses. Cambodia's Hun Sen has applauded his win. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did an about-turn from his recent attacks on the U.S. to issue a strikingly positive statement.

As someone who prides himself as an expert negotiator, Trump may also be convinced that he needs to shore up ties with Japan and ASEAN nations to strengthen his hand in dealing with Beijing. Shinzo Abe's rapid outreach to Trump -- he was one of the first foreign leaders to talk to him and will meet him in New York later in November en route to the APEC summit in Chile -- suggests he is thinking along those lines too.

But Trump's longstanding views may push him in the opposite, more dangerous direction.

His instinctive reaction in any disagreement is to pick a fight with his opponent, and in Asia, there is no bigger target than China, which Trump repeatedly attacked on the campaign trail. Any U.S.-China conflict threatens to be a disaster for the region if it gets out of control.

A trade war with China, after all, is effectively a trade war with Asia, because of the way that manufacturing supply chains wind their way through multiple countries before finally being shipped from China to the U.S. and elsewhere.

The Trump's team most visible adviser on China is U.S. academic, Peter Navarro, who had long demonized Beijing as an enemy of the U.S. Asked about China during the campaign, Navarro made no bones about the desirability of a commercial conflict with China. "To those who say Donald Trump will start a trade war, Trump says we are already in a trade war," he said, "and it's long past time we fought back."

Trump is largely ignorant of, or indifferent to, the region's increasingly important regional forums, like the East Asia leaders' annual summit, if the campaign is any guide, as they did not get a mention at all. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as his secretary of state, made a point of turning up to regional meetings, to display their commitment to the region. Trump may fall back into a pattern of benign neglect.

In the U.S., Trump has openly scorned minorities and enabled all sort of racist attacks that ought to be anathema to a national leader. In turn, the idea that Trump is empowering whites at the expense of other communities would run down America's image, and by extension, soft power in the region.

If Trump succeeds at restoring vitality to the U.S. economy, then the rest of the world might be willing to indulge his vanities and ignore his nastiness. But if he really does mean half of what he said in the campaign, then Asian nations will have to think long and hard about a new start themselves.

Once it sinks in that Donald Trump's America will no longer underwrite their prosperity and security, the countries that did rely on the U.S. will have to find it somewhere else.

Richard McGregor is a Washington-based author and journalist, and the author of a forthcoming book on east East Asian politics, 'Three Tigers, One Mountain: China, Japan and America in the Asian Century.'

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