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Politics

Trade may be the first casualty of a Trump presidency

Few East Asian governments, with the possible exceptions of Cambodia and North Korea, greeted the election of Donald Trump with much enthusiasm.  

A South China Morning Post poll published on Nov. 5 showed that 61% of Chinese preferred Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and only 39% supported Trump. A study of Chinese elite attitudes by the U.S. journal Foreign Policy found that while they viewed Clinton as unfriendly, most felt that Trump would be a disaster for the U.S., and hence for global stability.

China's leaders may not admit it, but they know that the U.S. is vital for regional stability. Like most of East Asia, China hates surprises. Clinton was a known quantity and would have stood for continuity in U.S. policy toward the region.

At the same time, East Asia is also pragmatic. Governments there will work with whoever is in power in the U.S.

But they are still wondering what a Trump presidency means. Some commentators believe that any U.S. president is so hemmed in by checks and balances that whatever his inclinations, there is not much room to move.

This is partly true, but the personality of a president can still make a crucial difference.

The polarization in American society that surrounded Trump's campaign went well beyond the normal passions of a hard-fought election. It is not the same open America, confident of its leadership in globalization, which has lifted millions out of poverty but also has created greater inequality. The consequence of globalization has been growing disillusionment and often anger at established institutions and political leaders.

Trump represents this global phenomenon, which is also reflected in Brexit, the rise of European extreme right-wing movements, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the neo-Maoist movement and nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution in China.

Trade may be the first casualty of the Trump presidency. There is virtually no future for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, depriving Washington's strategic "rebalance" toward Asia of its crucial economic wing. The Republican leadership that controls Congress is closely linked to business and still favors freer trade. But Republican leaders may accede to Trump's views, even though he is a very unorthodox -- and nominal -- Republican.

CUTTING BOTH WAYS Will President Trump do everything Candidate Trump promised? Some pledges, such as bringing American jobs back home, are impossible -- as he will soon discover if he does not already know it.

We do not know who Trump's Asia advisers will be -- particularly as Trump has boasted of being his own adviser. All we can be reasonably certain of about his attitude to East Asia is that he is going to take a very transactional approach, by which I mean he will seek immediate benefits for immediate acts. This cuts both ways.

A narrowly transactional approach will be impatient with the most important characteristic of East Asian diplomatic practice, which stresses process: the incremental accumulation of small steps.

Will Trump put the same priority as President Barack Obama on attendance at the East Asia Summit and other Asia-Pacific forums? I doubt it. This will feed the Chinese narrative of an unreliable America.

But a transactional approach will probably also make the Trump administration less likely to fall into the Chinese trap of posing false dilemmas and forcing false choices.

Trump clearly knows that China will not be cooperative unless it is in its own interest. This is precisely how Trump has lived his life and run his businesses: cooperating with others when it is to his benefit and ruthlessly competing when it is in his interests. Where the balance between these two aspects will be will depend on a Trump administration's sense of strategy. This is the biggest uncertainty of all.

In the South China Sea, I expect a Trump administration will continue Obama's policies, at least for some time. By his own admission, Trump hates to lose. He will not give up anything for nothing. Unless the Chinese offer him a major inducement, I expect the same ritualized pattern of patrol and protest to continue.

But will a Trump administration place the same emphasis as the Obama administration on principle, whether the principle is freedom of navigation, non-proliferation or human rights? His record suggests that he tends to see every deal as separate and discrete.

The poisonous election campaign has also undoubtedly caused reputational damage to American democracy. But before they conclude that celebration is in order, China's leaders would do well to remember that American resilience should not be underestimated -- and that all who have done so have eventually regretted it.

Bilahari Kausikan is a former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is currently ambassador-at-large. These are his personal views.

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