IF AMERICA is the biggest loser from the election of Donald Trump, can Asia not claim at least second place? Many policymakers and Asia hands argue so. In just seven months Mr Trump has swung “a wrecking-ball into the complex and long-standing machinery” of America’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region, writes T.J. Pempel of the University of California, Berkeley. Such a view is widely shared across Asia: that American leadership, which has underpinned the regional order since the second world war, is in peril under Mr Trump.
The list of concerns is long. Not only is the American president unpredictable. He lacks intellectual engagement in foreign policy and disdains diplomacy itself, except when it is conducted via bombastic tweets. He has ended America’s commitment to multilateral trade in Asia, pulling it out of negotiations for a 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade grouping encompassing two-fifths of world trade. Economists say this deal would have made all parties richer; Mr Trump dismissed it as “an attack on American business”. He was also quick to accuse old allies such as Japan and South Korea of unfair TRADE PRACTICES as well as of freeriding on American security guarantees.
Admittedly, Mr Trump has changed his tune as the nuclear threat from North Korea has become ever scarier. But his promise in early August to unleash “fire and fury” if Kim Jong Un’s regime continued its threats seems neither to have reassured South Korea and Japan, nor deterred the North from its frantic pace of missile development. On August 29th it launched an intermediate-range missile, thought capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, that streaked over northern Japan before crashing into the Pacific, causing jitters under its flight path.
After this latest provocation, the Trump administration avowed that it stood firmly behind both Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Many of America’s friends in the region give a prayer of thanks for the “grown-ups” in his government: the supposedly steady hands of Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state; James Mattis, the defence secretary; and H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser. Yet others are nervous. There are growing signs of mutual disgruntlement between Mr Trump and these lieutenants. The diplomatic machinery that drives America’s day-to-day relations in Asia is also creaking. Mr Trump has yet to fill swathes of senior positions in the State Department, including the key position of assistant secretary of state for East Asia. The accomplished official keeping the seat warm, Susan Thornton, cannot hope to have the clout of a political appointee. The morale of American diplomats slumps as their advice is dismissed and steep budget cuts loom.
With the grown-ups’ attention distracted by old quagmires such as those in the Middle East and Afghanistan (areas they are far better acquainted with than East Asia), it all adds up to a relegation of East Asia in American priorities, say the severest critics of the Trump administration in the region. The North Korean threat and trade frictions with China, they say, are the only problems in this part of the world that Mr Trump has time for. Mr Trump’s approach indeed contrasts with the “pivot” to Asia espoused by his predecessor, Barack Obama: the reassurance of allies through trade, diplomacy, defence ties and the encouragement of representative politics. It involved a policy towards China that both hedged against and engaged with America’s biggest trade partner and strategic rival. The strategy did not make a huge difference, but what little substance it had, except perhaps in the military domain, is now gone (and thuggish leadership from Thailand to the Philippines goes uncriticised). Mr Trump’s principle is to despise anything that Mr Obama held dear.
American prestige in Asia is suffering. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in Washington found that, among Japanese, confidence in America to do the right thing in world affairs was 54 percentage points lower than it was when Mr Obama was president. Among Australians it had fallen by 55 points and among South Koreans by 71 points. In no Asian country surveyed did America’s image come close to improving.
The China factor
But this does not amount to the end of the American-centred order in Asia. For a start, who would take America’s place? Certainly not members of the BRICS, a club comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Its leaders meet next week in the Chinese city of Xiamen with a sense, among some of them, that the strategic advantage is now theirs. Yet its two most populous members, China and India, defused a months-long stand-off between their soldiers along their high Himalayan frontier only days before it would have spoiled the love-in. The fact that both sides claimed victory suggests the matter is far from over. Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean diplomat, dismisses BRICS as “more a slogan than a geopolitical concept”.
China would disagree. It likes to think of forums such as BRICS and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation—a grouping mainly of Central Asian countries as well as China, Russia and India—as the building blocks of a new China-led order in Asia. But China is reluctant to push this idea too hard. It has been the most striking beneficiary to date of Pax Americana, which has provided a stable environment for spectacular growth across the region. Even China’s chief geostrategic initiative, its “belt-and-road” effort to foster infrastructure links in Asia and beyond, is no rival to the current order but is expressly built atop it. Meanwhile, its bullying behaviour in the region simply reinforces the desire of many Asian countries for greater American protection.
Despite Mr Trump’s wrecking-ball, America’s presence in Asia has foundations that are too deep to be destroyed in a single presidential term. Mr Kausikan says the edifice is stronger than it appears. China knows it, or at least so its neighbours hope.
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