SINGAPORE – Donald Trump’s “isolationist” foreign policy pronouncements are feeding insecurity in some Asian nations fearful of China’s growing power, and risk emboldening nationalists and authoritarians in the region.
The real estate developer, who is very close to securing the Republican nomination for November’s presidential election, has with undiplomatic abandon challenged much of the status quo in U.S.-Asia relations. Overall, his comments have sounded like a death knell for the “pivot to Asia” strategy adopted by President Barack Obama five years ago.
Trump has said U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea should pay more toward their defense, warned he could withdraw U.S. troops from bases in Japan, and mulled whether Japan and South Korea should have their own nuclear arms. This week he said he is willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which would represent a major shift in U.S. policy.
In a television interview on Friday, Trump told MSNBC that while he was open to talks, he “would never go to North Korea.”
Trump has also threatened to rein in China’s big trade surplus with the United States, saying he will threaten to impose heavy duties on Chinese goods. And Trump says he will rip up and then renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade pact agreed to by the U.S., Japan, and 10 other countries in February.
Furthermore, Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States risks undermining moderate leaders in Muslim countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
“If he becomes president and adopts his own version of foreign policy, the U.S. will cease to be a Pacific power. That’s the end result,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who served in both Beijing and Baghdad.
“It’s not that we would adopt ‘Japan First,’ but if the U.S. leaves, there will be a vacuum and China will try to fill it,” said Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies. “It’s a survival issue for all allies of the United States.”
Trump could, of course, lose the election to the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, who is well known by many Asia policymakers.
He could also act much differently if elected. But Asian diplomats and policy advisers say that initial impressions count.
Trump’s idea of making Japan and South Korea pay up rather than enjoy a cheaper ride under the U.S. security umbrella sent shudders through Tokyo and Seoul.
Trump reiterated his stance on Friday. “They have a lot of money, both of those nations,” he told MSNBC, pointing to Japan’s auto sales and South Korea’s electronics industry. “We have to get reimbursed.”
In addition, his comments about the possibility of a local nuclear deterrent fanned fears among Asian diplomats that the world could become an even more dangerous place.
“It is here that Trump is most scary,” Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to Washington, said in New Delhi, though he also noted it may be “just election rhetoric.
Japan’s nationalist-led government has already boosted defense spending and has reinterpreted, rather than formally amended, its pacifist Constitution to allow its military to come to the aid of allies under attack even if Japan itself if not attacked, a major shift in its post-war security stance.
“His position is causing anxiety, especially in East Asia,” said a senior lawmaker in Japan’s ruling coalition. “It is really hard to comprehend because conservatives have supported a stronger military presence and more engagement.”
Mansingh said he expects China to test the foreign policy resolve of whoever occupies the White House next, and the South China Sea looms as one of the most likely flash points.
Tensions over China’s land-building and installations on islets in the disputed waters flared on Tuesday, when two Chinese warplanes carried out what the Pentagon called an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft.
“They’re building a massive fortress in the South China Sea. They’re not supposed to be doing that,” Trump said, without saying what he would do about it.
At least, according to Mansingh, China’s leaders and Trump shared the mentality of deal makers, which could help settle diplomatic wrangles before they get out of hand.
Jia Qingguo, an adviser to China’s government on foreign affairs, said Trump sounds like an “isolationist” who doesn’t want the United States to become too active internationally.
“So, he doesn’t sound that aggressive,” said Jia, the dean of the School of International Relations at China’s elite Peking University. “Chinese tend to think that too much so-called internationalism on the part of the U.S. is not that good.”
A senior Japanese government official said Washington could lose influence in Asia if there was any perception it was softening its stance on issues like the South China Sea.
“And it would be very difficult to get it back,” he warned.
Mansingh says those fears are overblown as the United States’ self-interest lies in protecting access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
“What would American withdrawal mean? Does it want to hand over the affairs of the world to China? Would that serve anybody’s interest? I don’t think so.”
There are also fears that the TPP could unravel, or become worth a lot less to Asian partners, should Trump renegotiate the pact, as he has said he wants to do.
The deal has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress, but Obama has warned that delay could allow China to steal a march through its own proposed regional trade deal with 15 other nations.
“I think it’s hard to imagine that TPP would survive a Trump presidency,” said a top trade official in a major country in the region, who declined to be more closely identified.
” ‘Less intervention’ would be a small benefit compared to the massive damage to the world from a USA that becomes more isolationist and more crassly commercial under Trump,” he said.
The lack of priority Trump appears to give to issues that don’t serve his “America first” agenda could mean he’ll soft-pedal on human rights and democratic values, some critics said. That would come at a time when generals are running Thailand, a “strong man” has just been elected as president of the Philippines, and Malaysia’s prime minister has silenced independent media.
“Let’s hope that someone on his team realizes that respect for human rights must be a core U.S. foreign policy value and not just a reality show line,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
On the other hand, Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Thailand’s defense minister, Prawit Wongsuwon, expressed confidence that Trump wouldn’t apply pressure to countries like his.
“All in all, if Trump arrives, the chances of stronger ties will be good because he would want allies,” said Panitan.