Where Does Trump's America First Leave Asia?

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Asian leaders may find that their publics are less inclined to compromise with Washington under Trump.

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In his first weeks in office, President Trump has moved quickly to implement his America First agenda through a slew of executive orders. Trade and immigration are his foreign policy focal points.

Trump’s America First agenda has several implications for foreign policymaking. First, the ideas that motivate foreign policy will now need to meet the threshold of proving concrete benefits to the United States. The metric thus far seems to be the creation of jobs, and Trump’s outing of companies rumored to be moving jobs offshore has prompted hasty promises to stay home.

Those who populate the administration will not be from traditional sources of foreign policy expertise. These "never Trumpers," who during the campaign argued against Trump’s candidacy, are now largely locked out of consideration for positions in the new administration.

Foreign policy is traditionally seen as the prerogative of the executive branch of government, but already it seems the U.S. Congress and judiciary will claim their authority in shaping the president’s choices if he runs up against existing treaties or laws.

Broadly speaking, the new president has already demonstrated preferences for how he would like to pursue diplomacy in Asia. Trade policy seems destined for bi-lateralization, and this could put U.S. allies in a difficult spot. The new norms and rules of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) abandoned, these negotiations would likely focus exclusively on difficult market access issues — many of which have already been tackled during the TPP negotiations.

On the surface, closing the borders may seem to have little import for Asia, but it has stirred memories of past laws that barred Chinese immigrants and the unlawful detention of Japanese-Americans on the grounds that they were helping the enemy in wartime. And the metric of producing U.S. jobs also suggests greater scrutiny of Asian companies doing business in the United States.

In the security realm too this penchant for bilateralism could, at the very least, suggest a diminished US role in the East Asia Summit or any of the other ASEAN-centred efforts to discuss regional security. US Asia policy could very quickly become politicized and its alliances subjected to greater popular scrutiny with little or no strategic assessment of their value to the region.

But, like his predecessors, President Trump will — and has already — run into Congress, as he charts this new course. Asia policy has always reflected this tug and pull between the White House and Congress. One relationship is of particular interest to U.S. legislators — the U.S. relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since the Nixon administration pursued normalization in the 1970s, U.S.-China policy has been contentious on Capitol Hill.

Already there are signs that the United States will organize its approach to Asia around its antagonism towards China. As president-elect, Trump tweeted several times about being willing to rethink the "one China" policy in the wake of the phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文). Some of those associated with the campaign have also written about the need for a harder line towards Beijing, both in terms of taking a different approach to reducing the U.S. trade deficit as well as upping U.S. naval power in the region to contend with China’s maritime expansion.

In his confirmation hearing, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State made it very clear that the United States would challenge Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Rex Tillerson said: "We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed."

This drew a quick reaction from China. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang quietly discouraged the United States from getting involved in the dispute, stating, ‘The situation in the South China Sea has cooled down as countries in the region have come round to the agreement. We hope that countries outside the region will respect such an agreement that serves the common interests of the region and beyond’. The more pugilistic writers at the Global Times went further. ‘Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish’.

For some of Trump’s advisors, Ronald Reagan’s call for ‘peace through strength’ still resonates, and this approach is largely welcomed by Washington’s Asian allies who rely on U.S. military might for deterrence. But an escalation of tensions with China, especially over the sensitive issue of Taiwan, could make the already difficult military relations between Beijing and Tokyo far more unpredictable.

In contrast to the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance’ to Asia, it may be that no Asia policy emerges from this administration. Rather, the America First agenda will take one relationship at a time and define it in terms of President Trump’s priorities. The political resistance this could provoke may engender another wave of anti-American sentiment in Asia.

Over the longer term, the question will be how Asia responds to the Trump administration. Will the countries that signed on to the TPP, for example, continue on without the United States? Will they continue to advocate with the new U.S. administration to return? Or, will they succumb to the allure of a bilateral deal that ensures market access?

While many in Asia seek close economic and strategic cooperation with the United States, Asian leaders may find that their publics are less inclined to compromise with Washington if the Trump administration hews too closely to an America First agenda. U.S. power cannot be ignored, of course, but the status of the United States in Asia derives not only from its brute strength but also from its commitment to the ideals of democratic practice. Without popular support, the United States will find that governments in Asia will be far less ready partners in regional cooperation.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White

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