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Trump swings a wrecking ball at US–Asia relations

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US President Donald Trump waves while boarding Air Force One before departing for Arizona from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, US, 22 August 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts).

In Brief

Few analysts in the United States or East Asia anticipated the speed with which the Trump administration would swing a wrecking ball into the complex and longstanding machinery of US relations with the Asia Pacific.


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Yet in its first six months, it is well on its way to eviscerating many of the most valuable tools in the United States’ diplomatic toolbox.

The destruction starts from the top. President Donald Trump disdains serious engagement with the nuances of foreign policy. Every character flaw that he demonstrated before taking office — serial lying; intellectual laziness; loyalty to himself; the coddling of white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan and violent right-wing extremists — has grown more toxic since his inauguration.

Trump’s unquenchable narcissism spawns sycophantic cabinet meetings and ego-gratifying reports on his favourable media coverage. His foreign policy ‘guidance’ is reduced to blusterous tweets such as his vow to unleash ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ against North Korea.

Foreign policy and the Asia Pacific enjoy low priority. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor HR McMaster scramble to foster foreign policy coherence. Numerous foreign policy experts refuse to join the administration, leaving key agencies and embassies devoid of senior appointees.

Meanwhile, the administration plans to cut the budget of the State Department by 30 per cent. Longstanding US interlocutors in East Asia are left dubious about reassurances that the US’s regional engagement continues unfazed. By early June, the US had reassured Japan 28 times of its defence commitment.

Instead, the White House has prioritised the xenophobic banner of ‘America First’. Three days into office, Trump issued an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The decision shattered expectations among the remaining 11 signatories who, after years of complex negotiations, anticipated US cooperation in structuring trade for 40 per cent of the global economy. Subsequently, Trump also announced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord in an effort to repay support among ‘climate change deniers’; gas, oil and coal companies; and anti-multilateralists.

Breaking with the Obama administration’s prioritisation of Asia through its ‘rebalance,’ its attention to Southeast Asia, its embrace of multilateralism, and its complex mixture of engagement and hedging toward China, the Trump administration has relegated East Asia to a tertiary geographical priority behind defeating the so-called Islamic State and improving relations with Russia. Southeast Asia is ignored; multilateralism is scorned; China is threatened with a trade war and North Korea is ‘checked’ by fulminating ad-libs devoid of strategic coherence.

Even more worrisome have been the new administration’s disconcerting attacks on longstanding allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, as well as challenges to the South Korea–US Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Instead of being applauded as mutually beneficial cornerstones of regional stability that ensure a forward US regional presence, all have been lambasted as losing commercial transactions.

China has played Trumpian miscues masterfully. In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a fulsome, if ironic, defence of free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos as the United States turns inward. He did much the same on climate change.

China also secured a reversal of Trump’s initial friendliness toward Taiwan by making it clear there would be no summit without an explicit endorsement of the ‘one China’ principle. And following the ego-stroking success achieved by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Xi did his own massage of Trump’s narcissism during his visit at Mar-a-Lago, convincing him, among other things, that the Korean peninsula was once part of China.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials rushed approval of dozens of long-stalled Trump trademark requests while Ivanka Trump received similar approvals for her clothing line. Chinese money has gushed into Trump apartments, hotels and catering facilities. The cumulative effect has been an unmistakable acceleration in Chinese influence in Washington while across the region countries quiver with trepidation.

Finally, US soft power has been pulverised. Longstanding principles of democracy and human rights have effectively disappeared from US foreign policy rhetoric, replaced by unqualified adulation for dictators from the Middle East to the Philippines to Russia. A June 2017 Pew international poll found that the United States’ image has plummeted since the end of the Obama administration. Three-fifths to three-quarters of those surveyed identified Trump as intolerant, dangerous and arrogant. His signature policy proposals were castigated and confidence in the US president to do the right thing in world affairs fell 55 points in Australia, 54 points in Japan and a stunning 71 points in South Korea.

By the six-month mark, the Trump administration is well on its way to upending 70 years of regional partnerships, institutional allegiances and soft power appeal through cavalier neglect and wilful destruction. Core allies  enjoy only tepid, transactional and military support and the countries of Southeast Asia are ignored. China’s already strong influence is accelerating, while administration ineptitude increases the risks of miscalculation with adversaries such as North Korea.

US foreign policy is paying a high price for the electoral results of 8 November 2016 — but East Asians may find themselves big losers, despite having had no voice in that election.

T.J. Pempel is Jack M. Forcey Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.

2 responses to “Trump swings a wrecking ball at US–Asia relations”

  1. A very insightful, albeit sobering if not disheartening, analysis, in my opinion.

    Merkel and Macron in Europe quickly decided after their initial meetings with Trump that they’d have to rely on themselves and their fellow EU members for coherence, consistency and, hopefully, success in their dealings with Russia and the other challenges that they face. Can Abe and Moon overcome the historically related issues which confound their relationship to do likewise? Will ‘necessity be the mother of invention’ in NE and SE Asia?

  2. This is no doubt an interesting analysis of the Trump administration but there is more than meets the eye.

    1 “Few analysts in the United States or East Asia anticipated the speed with which the Trump administration would swing a wrecking ball into the complex and longstanding machinery of US relations with the Asia Pacific.”

    This is true because they did not have access to the information released by whistleblower Kevin M. Shipp in a presentation on 28 July 2017 after publishing his book “From the Company of Shadows.” That presentation can be viewed on youtube, under “CIA Agent Whistleblower Risks All To Expose The Shadow Government.”

    In that presentation viewers will learn that the Shadow Government really controls the elected govt of the United States, with the help of the Deep State.

    When Trump was unexpectedly elected over Hillary Clinton, the anointed candidate, he pledged to drain the swamp to get rid of these two unconstitutional entities and there is now an internal cold war, according to Mr Shipp.

    2 “Yet in its first six months, it is well on its way to eviscerating many of the most valuable tools in the United States’ diplomatic toolbox.”

    Don’t blame President Trump. If he is the one who is swinging “a wrecking ball into the complex and longstanding machinery of US relations with the Asia Pacific” there must be an existential reason.

    He is an expert in reading two “financial reports”, otherwise he would not be a billionaire. These are the Balance Sheet and the P&L Statement.

    These documents show that under GAAP, the United States is insolvent, with a National Debt of US$20 trillion and an unfunded debt of at least another US$222 trillion in 2012, according to Economics professor Lawrence Kotlikoff of Boston University. On 29 Sept 2017, Congress has to raise the debt-ceiling or there will be a shutdown of the US Govt.

    Trump intuitively knows that he has practically no chance to fulfill his pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’ unless he stops the National Debt from going ballistic.

    This means reviewing all unnecessary and wasteful leadership transactional expenditures and demanding that all US allies do most of the funding of some 900 US military and supply bases all over the world.

    Trump is not to blame because in two wasteful terms George W Bush raised the National Debt by US$5 trillion in the ‘war on terror’. The more profligate President Obama wasted another US$10 trillion in 8 years of endless wars, drone and missile strikes on innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

    Trump also intuitively knows that eventually all empires fell into the scrap heap of history like the Greek, Roman, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, Ottoman, German (Nazi), Japanese, Soviet and British empires did when the money ran out. The US military empire will be next unless Trump stops the punchbowl from being taken away by the free market.

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