Trump's Asia Trip was Surprisingly Predictable

Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik
Why you need to know

Donald Trump seems to be content with withdrawing his country from the Asia-Pacific security landscape — but withdrawing leaves a vacuum into which others will expand.

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Any anticipation of the outcome of Donald Trump's Asian trip was blurry, for the president’s temper has shown to be unpredictable.

His rhetoric towards China was aggressive, and he ridiculed the PRC’s stance on climate change as a hoax. In recent weeks, his tone towards the North Korean leadership raised concerns about his willingness to seek a peaceful solution to the nuclear arms race that Pyongyang has embarked on. Much of the security architecture of the region came about with the help and the support of the United States. Would Donald Trump be the one who destroys the work of his predecessors of the last 70 years?

As we head towards the end of the trip with Trump visiting his populist counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, we know where this U.S. administration is headed, and it is more than concerning: in Japan, Mr. Trump advised the country to go on a shopping tour for arms in the United States so the country could independently defend itself against its foes – and rectify a trade deficit in the process.

The U.S. president seems to be entirely ignorant that it is the United States that guarantees the safety of Japan, a country with a constitutional vow to abstain from military engagement. In South Korea, the president took a strong yet conciliatory turn in his policy toward the troubling northern neighbor, suggesting that he is convinced Kim Jong-un will come around and sit down to talk and, in the president’s favorite words, "make a deal."

The immediate danger of a nuclear escalation with the bellicose dictatorship seems to have been confined, yet the claim that Pyongyang is ready for or even interested in deal making has yet to be confirmed by the regime.

U.S. foreign policy aims for a prosperous Asian Pacific region that will overcome its deep-seated historical differences via ever deeper economic integration. To secure this scenario, successive U.S. administrations have guaranteed the security of the flourishing neighborhood.

By questioning this arrangement and arguing that nation states should handle security solo, Trump is playing into the hands of nationalists everywhere. In Japan, there is growing support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wish to re-militarize, while in South Korea, there is talk of loosening ties with the U.S. military and building an independent nuclear deterrent Both developments carry a danger of reinvigorating animosities between Japan and South Korea.

In China, finally, the leadership spoke in a language that Trump is fully able to comprehend and navigate: offering a deal of about the size of the contentious trade deficit between the two countries. Investments and acquisitions of US$250 billion were promised and signed — an incredible result. Was it utter joy that made Trump forget other policy issues that his predecessors had with the Middle Kingdom? Or was it part of the deal? There was nothing but silence about human rights violations, the situation of Hong Kong, the security of Taiwan, the question of Tibet, or the influence Beijing has over North Korea. Nothing. Silence.

Decades of diplomacy in East Asia is under siege: Donald Trump seems to be content with trade deals alone, withdrawing his country from the global landscape, where, according to some, the U.S. had been overly engaged in in the past. But withdrawing leaves a vacuum into which others will expand: President Xi Jinping expressed a vision for the country that he is ruling for at least the next five years with the stroke of his pen. Viewing China as on a par in term of prowess as the United States, he wishes the country to be included in international relations and conflict resolution, be it in the Middle East or other parts of the world.

This perspective is utterly discouraging. China — a totalitarian power that not only favors autocratic one-party rulership, but also cracks down on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion — may get an equal say at the table. While Bill Clinton and Barack Obama publicly discussed China’s issues of human rights at press conferences such as the one that Xi and Trump just conducted, the current U.S. president chose to make not even a remark. Perhaps he would have, had the U.S. side not blithely accepted the Chinese request that there be no reporters’ questions allowed at the meeting.

China, on seeing the vacuum in moral leadership left by the current U.S. government, might well be inclined to tighten its grip on liberal movements in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. All takes to appease the world's greatest political and military power is a few trade deals and all atrocities seem to be forgotten.

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