Trump’s rhetoric: retrenchment, status quo or deepening engagement? Stephen R Nagy is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University, Tokyo This year’s US presidential cycle rhetoric provided a clear contrast as to what East Asia neighbours should expect from the US’s strategic commitment to the region. On the one hand we had Hillary Clinton, a known entity with a track record on East Asia that would have provided at the minimum more of the same and at maximum a more robust, yet cautious approach to dealing with China’s regional and global rise. Her views were clearly articulated in her Foreign Affairs piece called the ‘Pivot’ and Kurt Campbell’s book of the same name. In short, a multi-pronged, sustained engagement strategy in the region that would embed the US through economic ties such as the TPP, through expanded military cooperation as evidenced by the US-Japan security alliance, but also through expanded diplomatic and track two diplomacy in which 100,000 plus American students study at universities in the region to develop language skills, cultural acumen and those precious personal networks that can be leveraged to manage bilateral relations. On the other hand, we had a now President-elect Trump whose policies were viewed as dangerous, naïve, uninformed, isolationist and confrontational. On the campaign trail he spoke light-heartedly about both South Korea and Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, making allies pay for their American military protection, about unfair trade practices of Japan, South Korea and China and the importance of labelling China a currency manipulator. Unfortunately for the signatories of the TPP, Mr Trump explicitly said that he will not accept the TPP, a trans Pacific free trade agreement that is a 1st tier trade agreement that includes high standards for intellectual property rights, but also clauses for services, environmental protection and the role of state owned enterprises (SOEs). Trump’s stance on the TPP is problematic for the long-term national interests of the US and TPP members (aspirants as well) as the TPP links countries with different comparative advantages in the Asia-Pacific region through the South China Sea (SCS) and as a result it inculcates an increased number of strategic security stakeholders in the SCS. This has the intended effect of linking economic and security policy towards an effort to forge trade and security behaviour that decreases the incentives of countries to unilaterally change the status quo of the region through economic or security Trojan horses. Retrenchment and isolationism Trump’s election rhetoric regarding security in East Asia is of a concern as well as it would dismantle the US’s 70 plus years of providing a security framework in the region that allowed Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia countries to focus on peaceful socio-economic development instead of military capacity building. Aside from the obvious challenge that an increased military rivalry would have for the region, retrenchment or isolationism by the US (militarily but also economically) would also be damaging for the global economy as the most economically dynamic region of the world would shunt valuable economic and human capital resources away from economic activities towards bolstering their military defence capabilities. In a period when global economic growth is already precarious owing to a slowdown in economic growth in China, stagnant or low economic growth in Japan, Europe and in the BRICS and other emerging economies, retrenchment and isolationism by the US under a Trump administration would have severe consequences for the global economy but also seriously wound the US economy, neither of which are in the national interests of the US nor would they “Make America Great Again!”. Status quo Assuming that Trump maintains the status quo in East Asia by adopting the broadly bipartisan approach the US has had toward the region over the past 70 years, leaders in the region would be cautiously relieved but would still harbour concern about the US’s commitment to the region. For many East Asian countries (except China and North Korea), the US’s economic and security policy in the region has been understood and felt as uncommitted, wavering, not robust enough and distracted with domestic politics and the Middle East. With both Clinton and Trump rejecting the multidimensional TPP agreement in the pre-election period and then President Obama being not even able to bring the agreement to the House of Representatives for ratification in the lame duck session, TPP signatories in the words of Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong, feel as if “they have been left standing at the wedding altar”. This sentiment that the status quo represents American intransigence concerning East Asia has also been felt in the security realm as well. The US’s inability to curb Chinese assertiveness in the SCS and East China Sea (ESC), to finding a solution to deal with North Korea and to explicitly state the US’s position on territorial issues such as the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands (until recently) and those in the SCS have left East Asian countries straining to comprehend the US’s commitment in the region. Even the Philippines under President Duterte has eschewed their relationship as longstanding allies in lieu for a different approach to solving its bilateral territorial dispute with China, owing to the US’s lack of economic and military commitment to the Philippines. More of the same under President Trump will not ‘Make America Great’, it will prompt more insecurity amongst allies and partners in the region’ It will compel traditional partners such as Japan to build more strategic partnerships in and outside the region to counter the concern that the US may not be willing or able to abide by its security, economic and political commitments in the region. This will have the effect of further destabilising the region as a security competition between China, Japan and other countries in the region would develop. This would distract the globe’s primary contributors to economic growth away from prioritising trade and economic growth to building military capabilities, and it would increase the level of uncertainty in East Asia as a viable place to do business. Deepening engagement A third possibility exists for the US under a Trump Presidency, deepening engagement. This scenario, while counter to his pre-election rhetoric, remains a high probability based on his foreign policy advisors’ views on China being an economic and military threat and Trump’s interest in invigorating the US economy and the US’s long term strategic national interest of remaining engaged in East Asia for economic prosperity, but also to prevent the advent of a peer competitor in the region. Trumps’ advisors such as Alexander Gray and Peter Narravo, although not mainstream China watchers, have both advocated for ‘peace through strength’. They support an end to defence sequestration, increased military spending to build more naval ships for Asia-Pacific deployment, and a harder line stance towards China, in particular over its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, but also with regards to its perceived unfair trade practices. They also advocate more support for democratic Taiwan, a policy that would be sure to anger Beijing and escalate friction between the two states. The US could unilaterally turn this policy into reality but it would welcome partners to support this more robust position in East Asia. Japan, Vietnam and India would welcome this increased commitment but so would smaller Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, as it would allow them to continue to expand economic relations with China as well with extra regional powers such as the US, Japan, and Australia while at the same time rely on the US and its network of security partnerships for security. Deepening engagement by the Trump administration through security and economic partnerships in the region are crucial if the new administration wants to remain economically engaged and an agenda-setter in the region. Without a resurrected TPP, economic leadership momentum garnered by China through successful initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt One Road(OBOR) will shape the region’s economic architecture to one that excludes the US or at least orients the regional economies towards Beijing’s economic axis. This possible exclusion would be further magnified if other competing economic agreements that exclude the US come to fruition such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the China-Japan-Korea FTA. With that in consideration, pre-election rhetoric will be trumped by national interests in East Asia and the risk of being locked out of the region economically if Trump chooses retrenchment and isolation over deepening engagement. As a consequence of this economic zero-sum game, deepening engagement in East Asia will broadly continue under a Trump administration. This engagement will necessary include an expanded naval deployment in the Asia-Pacific, more join security cooperation with security partners such as Japan in the region. It will also include either more bilateral trade agreements in the region or a resurrected TPP in which some components of the present agreement are renegotiated and various laws adopted domestically to protect workers that are most vulnerable to intended and unintended consequences of the trade agreement. This deepened engagement will be welcome by most capitals in East Asia save for Beijing and Pyongyang as it is consistent with the desire Southeast Asian countries, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and India to have continued economic intercourse with China while at the same time enjoying expanded economic and security relations with the US. In Beijing, a more robust US policy may be unexpected and counter to the prevailing view that a Trump Presidency would create more favourable conditions for China in terms of securing its core interests and its desire to attenuate the US’s political, economic and military influence in the region. At the same time, a more assertive and anti-China policy under Trump may have the unintended consequences of increasing nationalism in China and compelling leaders to have more nationalist stances in their domestic and international politics. This will bolster President Xi’s hand at the upcoming 6th Plenum in which China chooses their next Standing Committee members, allowing him to choose a more cohesive, nationalist leadership team as well as extend his leadership term beyond the normal ten-year period. This could lead to more friction between the US and China in the short to mid-term but it might have the non-tangential effect of strengthening his power base which will allow him to push through tough economic reforms and policies to root out corruption. Pre-election rhetoric: trumped by national interests Washington under Trump will need to consider the how the choices of retrenchment/isolationism, status quo and deepening engagement will not only have domestic consequences in the US but also domestic and international consequences abroad. Without a nuanced, carefully considered strategy pre-election rhetoric that becomes policies could have numerous unintended consequences that would accelerate China’s rise or the US’s relative decline. Either case would create economic, political and security vacuums that would be filled by peer competitors such as China or asymmetrically powerful countries such as Russia. These would decrease American influence, weaken the US’s agenda setting capabilities in international organisations and trade pacts and negatively affect the business prospects for US businesses globally but in particular in East Asia. Rather than rhetoric, Mr Trump should borrow a saying from Mao Zedong, “Seek truth from facts” ( /shí shì qiú shì) and pursue an East Asia strategy that is based on national interests and an East Asian policy based on deepening engagement that has been broadly represented in bipartisan American diplomacy in the region over the last 70 years. Without such an approach, Trump’s rhetoric turned policy may be seen by historians as the equivalent of the end of Pax Britannica in which Britain lost its economic, political and military primacy. This did not make ‘Britain Great Again’ and neither will it make ‘America Great Again’ either.
In a period when global economic growth is already precarious... retrenchment and isolationism by the US under a Trump administration would have severe consequences for the global economy