The Trump series continues with a look at how his Presidency will impact allies and others in East Asia.
A lot of discussion has gone into how Donald Trump’s presidential election victory will affect America – less has been said on what this means for the rest of the world. For East Asia, a region of great significance to American foreign policy under President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, Trump’s victory is going to cause significant changes in US-East Asia relations, as well as shifts in the region’s balance of power.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which Trump is staunchly against and has likened to “a continuing rape” of the USA, was the first of Obama’s projects with East Asia to be hit by Trump’s election. The Obama administration has conceded that it would not be able to pass this deal through Congress prior to Trump’s presidential inauguration, marking the death of what was to be the world’s largest trade agreement – comprising 12 countries of the Pacific Rim, including a number of economies in Asia.
Asian countries, however, are likely to push for a final agreement on ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, China’s favoured alternative to the TPP, which encompasses 16 countries in Pacific Asia and leaves out the USA. This represents a turn in regional balance of power as the new agreement would, according to President Obama, allow China to “write the rules” of trade in the region, while the USA is left outside of the negotiations.
Nonetheless, the Trump presidency does not signal better economic prospects for China either. During his campaigns, Trump has likened Chinese trade with the USA to Beijing “raping” the American economy, called China a “currency manipulator”, and threatened to impose up to 45% tariff on Chinese imports to the USA. If he turns out to be as protectionist as he suggested during his campaigns, China may suffer a huge fall in its export revenue to the USA, which is China’s largest export market.
A speech given by Trump in February called for the withdrawal of US forces from Japan and Korea where troops are stationed to protect these allies from the North Korean nuclear threat and to balance Chinese military powers. His suggestion in a Fox News interview that these allies replaced retiring US forces with nuclear weapons created concerns about nuclear proliferation and an arms race in East Asia, but a more likely scenario involves a less radical change in the region’s security regime. This is because Trump also mentioned that continuance of US operations in Korean and Japanese territories would be possible following greater financial contributions from these countries. This would represent a continuation of the trend in Japanese and Korean military cooperation with the USA, which has seen these two Asian states strengthen their own security.
Obama’s pivot to Asia has already shown signs of weakening towards the end of his second term. America’s two formal allies in South East Asia have been turning towards cooperation with China amidst setbacks in their relations with the USA. The Philippines’ newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte has begun to appease Beijing in return for investments in his country’s infrastructures, whilst relations between Manila and Washington has somewhat worsened after US condemnation of the Filipino government’s extra-judicial killings during its war on drugs. Similarly, Thai-US relations have soured since the Thai military coup in 2014. Trump’s isolationist stance may therefore exacerbate this trend.
However, retreating from Pacific Asia will simply shift the regional balance of power more towards China, which may not be in accordance with the United States’ trade and security interests. Yet refraining from condemnation of human rights abuses in certain Asian countries may also win him larger support from less liberal governments.
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