The election of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump slams cost of the F-35 fighter plane What Asia needs to hear from President-elect Trump GOP rep calls Mattis ‘right guy for this right time’ MORE to the American presidency has brought surprise and uncertainty to the world, and the Asia Pacific is no exception.
Given American interests in the region during a time of increasing tension, it is vital that Mr. Trump communicate where his administration stands on key economic and defense issues.
Providing clarity in the following areas would lessen chances of miscalculations by allies and adversaries, instill confidence in economic stakeholders and help the new administration take advantage of new opportunities that changes of leadership bring.
Trade – Asia is familiar with Mr. Trump’s railings against “disastrous trade deals” and pledges to “create American jobs, increase American wages, and reduce America’s trade deficit” during his campaign. The President-elect has begun the process of making good on these campaign promises with his recent pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal during his first day in office.
Mr. Trump has described himself as a “smart trader” who is not against trade but who wants to “make better deals” and strive for “fair trade”, and his administration would be well served to explain in general terms the types of enforceable rules that Washington will insist upon in negotiations.
Additionally, as President-elect Trump has floated the idea of new rules restricting investment and slapping double-digit tariffs on goods from countries that engage in trade practices he deems to be unfair, a description of the triggers for these measures would be helpful for spelling out his administration’s trade policies.
A failure to explain the trade parameters that the Trump Administration holds as acceptable would add to the present state of uncertainty in the region and harm prospects for the fair trade that Trump seeks for American workers.
While Trump has described the benefits of keeping one’s cards close to his chest — a tactic he has advocated for both war operations (the Mosul invasion) and political dealings — some argue that present ambiguities have initiated the process of ceding trade policy in Asia to China.
Chinese President Xi Jingping’s statements at the recent APEC summit in Peru seem to support this argument: “Openness is vital for the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific … We will fully involve ourselves in economic globalization … China will not shut the door to the outside world but will open it even wider.”
The Korean Peninsula – The Obama administration is said to have suggested to Trump’s team that North Korea be its top national security priority. The refusal of the Obama administration to negotiate with Pyongyang in the absence of Kim Jong Un’s commitment to back off his nuclear program — an approach the administration calls “strategic patience” — has failed to make progress in blunting the regime’s efforts to weaponize a ballistic missile.
Beyond this, the Obama administration’s stated intentions to improve the North Korean human rights situation has floundered with new, tragic revelations that the regime’s gulags are expanding and thriving. Trump would be well advised to take a separate and more aggressive approach.
A first step would be to explicitly state Washington’s guarantee of South Korean and Japanese defenses and support of the recent installation of the U.S. Army’s anti-ballistic missile system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea earlier this year over objections by Beijing and Pyongyang.
Such measures would be welcomed as a tactful walking back on Mr. Trump’s campaign threats to lessen U.S. defense support for South Korea and Japan in the absence of both countries footing more of the bill to host U.S. troops. These steps would provide needed assurance to allies that there will be no scaled back American military deterrent in Northeast Asia.
Concerning China’s broad influence over North Korea and role in propping up its regime, it is no secret that China does not want the nuclear issue resolved on American terms and prefers a maintenance of the status quo of a North Korean buffer state on its own border.
As such, the need to identify new ways of encouraging — or compelling — Beijing’s involvement takes on added importance given North Korea’s worrying advancements and the failure of the U.S. to make headway on the issue.
Despite the costs to the American economy, some have advocated a U.S. trade war, the levying of secondary sanctions on China and the cessation of the U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty negotiations as ways to exact action by Beijing on North Korea. Such measures, it is explained, would use the economic leverage of the U.S. to impose a cost on Chinese inaction on the issue, forcing Beijing to cooperate when the price of not cooperating becomes inhibitive.
While this approach may not be necessary, initial steps of sanctioning Chinese companies, banks and actors involved in North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights abuses — accompanied by the threat of tariffs on select goods — would send a strong first message by a new Trump administration.
China – Mr. Trump’s December 2 phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, while running against U.S. policy and diplomatic protocol, ought not to set off U.S.-China relations on a bad footing if handled correctly going forward. A stated commitment by the Trump Administration to peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations would be a helpful first step towards calming nerves and assuring all parties that the new White House team will not stir a hornet’s nest on this issue.
Despite repeatedly bashing China as a currency manipulator and accusing Beijing of creating the “concept of global warming … in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”, the President-elect would benefit from tailoring public statements about Beijing in a more respectful manner as the Chinese seldom respond well to open derision, blanket accusations and loss of face.
That said, Mr. Trump must be firm and clear on a range of issues covering the multi-faceted U.S.-China relationship involving trade, investment, security, intelligence, geopolitics, the environment and human rights, among other areas.
Mr. Trump has an opportunity to reset U.S.-China relations on a new trajectory after the prior two administrations often chose accommodation of China on security issues. Tepid responses to Beijing’s aggressive assertions of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and its unilateral imposition of the East China Sea air defense identification zone are two examples.
Unequivocal statements from the Trump Administration on the United States’ enduring commitment to the security of the Asia Pacific would help counter the region’s current sentiments that the South China Sea is destined to become a Chinese lake and that China is the region’s inevitable, sole hegemon in the 21st century and beyond. These statements must be affirmed by upgrades to both the U.S. military capabilities and joint partnerships in the region.
Partners & Allies – Recently, there have been alarming setbacks to America’s relations with the Asia Pacific, namely with Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. The setbacks have stemmed from the Obama administration’s public lecturing of Bangkok and Manila over perceived human rights abuses, and, in the case of Malaysia, over the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit implicating Prime Minister Najib Razak in a money-laundering scandal involving Malaysia’s state fund.
The fallout from these turns of events has been each of these three countries deepening their diplomatic, military and commercial ties with Beijing at the expense of Washington, and, in the case of the Philippines, an enhancement of relations with Putin’s Russia as well.
President-elect Trump can do the following to soothe frayed nerves and give confidence to Asian countries regarding America’s involvement in the region:
- Demonstrate an openness to engage the region commercially, despite the harsh campaign rhetoric about trade. By recognizing the desires and hopes of the region’s developing economies, the Trump administration will be granted more accommodation in its efforts for “fair” and “smart” trade.
- Increase military visits to the region and reassure Asian partners that Washington’s undertakings in the war on terror will not distract from its responsibilities in the Pacific. While countries have begun hedging in an inevitable balancing act between the U.S. and China as both powers vie for influence in the region, the Trump administration would begin on a good footing by the deepening of defense ties with area nations.
- Abandon public criticism of partners and learn of their concerns. Identify areas of cooperation on issues that those in Asia are presently confronting: security, economic development, infrastructure and investment. A failure to engage in these areas would increase prospects of the U.S. relinquishing its postwar role of providing the stabilizing influence that played a key role in allowing for the region’s prosperity to develop.
Acting on these initial steps will erase uncertainty about the incoming administration’s policies and commitment to Asia. It will also help the new White House work with this growing, dynamic part of the world in which the U.S. will continue to have vital stakes for generations to come.
Ted Gover, Ph.D. is Instructor of Political Science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.
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