Trump: What Should Asia Do?

Picture of Professor Michael Wesley

Professor Michael Wesley

Professor Michael Wesley
Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

Once again, Trump has broken the mould. The 100-day mark is traditionally used to assess a new administration’s progress in advancing its policy agenda. With Trump, that’s impossible. In foreign policy at least, it’s more appropriate to ask whether at the 100-day mark the Trump administration is any closer to actually having a policy agenda.

In no region is this question more pressing than in the Asia Pacific. The Asia Pacific is home to two-thirds of the world’s population, two-thirds of the global economy, and provides two-thirds of all global economic growth. It is the arena for the most serious challenge to America’s international role since it emerged as a global power a century ago. It is also the region that hosts six of the world’s nine nuclear states, and four of those have the fastest growing stockpiles and the most unpredictable nuclear doctrines.

Few would dispute that for over 70 years, the United States has both stabilised the Asia Pacific’s fractious strategic affairs and underpinned its rapid economic development. And so the possibility of a radically different American role in the region instituted by the least conventional President in living memory is of vital interest not only to the residents of the region, but to the world as a whole.

We asked experts from across the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific to watch and assess the impact of Trump on the Asia Pacific during the first hundred days of his Presidency – and how the region, and Australia should respond. It’s the sort of exercise that the largest and most comprehensive collection of expertise on the Asia Pacific on the planet can do with relish – and with a customary policy eye. The result is a fascinating and varied portrait of how the new administration has affected the world’s most dynamic region, and how the region is likely to react.

When viewed together, these essays allow us to reflect on three questions that will be crucial for this region and the world over the next four years and perhaps beyond. What have we learned about Trump and his administration? What do the region’s reactions to Trump tell us about the regional role of the United States in the future? And what do these responses tell us about the Asia Pacific, and its likely trajectory in the near- and mid-term future?

The meaning of Trump

Trump’s election threw a whirlpool of uncertainty into global politics. Unlike his opponent, the President-elect had never held public office, been nurtured within a mainstream political party, established a coterie of established policy advisers, or thought and spoken systematically about America’s role in the world. One of our essayists, Bates Gill, suggests the idea of a “Predictometer” during the course of the first 100 days as a way of gauging the Administration’s progress in outlining a clear policy agenda. In other words, has the Trump Administration become more clear and predictable on major policy or less so since assuming office?

Our Predictometer makes its calculations from three data inputs. The first two are what the President says he will do; and what his administration actually does – and the congruence between words and deeds. The third is staff – the people appointed by the President to senior positions in the Cabinet, State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council and Intelligence Agencies, and what we know about their professional records and opinions on policy. Weaving these three data sources together is the essence of Washington-ology, the equivalent of Kremlinology.

On day one, the Trump administration started at 25% on the Predictometer, a reading based on the Candidate’s pronouncements during the campaign. During Trump’s first weeks in office, the Predictometer began to tick upwards, as Executive Order followed Executive Order – pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, cancelling visas for citizens of six Muslim nations, talking tough on the Border Wall.

But then the needle began to waver. The declaratory policy of “branding China a currency manipulator on day one” was unmatched by a corresponding operational policy. Neither was the threat of a 45% tariff on Chinese imports. Some appointments were made at cabinet level, but only the Defense Secretary had anything like an established background of systematic policy thinking. While the State Department haemorrhaged senior staff, weeks and then months went by without any appointments being made to the crucial foreign and security policy agencies.

And while the President continued to tweet tough, Vice President Pence and Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis travelled widely to calm nervous allies and rivals alike. Meanwhile, the President waged war against his own intelligence agencies, and other parts of the system began to push back against the President’s Executive Orders.

By our reading, the Predictometer has gone backwards and is currently nudging single figures. The gap between declaratory and operational policy has left friends and rivals alike unsure of what the Administration really thinks about crucial issues – or whether there is anyone doing very much policy thinking at all. No-one knows how much influence key administration figures – Pence, Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster – have over policy or the President’s worldview, and so many have started to lobby Trump’s son-in-law.

There is still a large number of senior positions in the foreign and security agencies that have not been filled, which usually would provide the clarity and reassurance that foreign governments search for in a new Administration. Leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Abe have left positive meetings with the President unsure of whether what he has told them is what he really thinks.  The threat-action gap that has opened up on China, NATO and Japan raises further questions on whether and when the President will be called to account for his lack of action – and if he is, what his volatile temperament will lead him to respond with.

Despite all of his railing against his predecessor’s inaction, Trump’s record thus far is starting to resemble Obama’s, in action if not in words. Obama came to power determined to be conciliatory towards rivals (remember the reset button with Russia?), and largely unsentimental towards allies.

Over time, this was highly damaging to America’s role in the world as rivals began to treat the Administration with contempt and allies started to doubt the commitment of the United States to a stabilising role in the face of emboldened challengers. Trump could be leading the United States back down this same path.

While sending cruise missiles against Syrian regime forces has brought Trump praise, far more difficult challenges remain for the new President.

Trump’s Mar-a Lago Summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping was attended by high expectations that the “Deal-Maker in Chief” would land some major concessions on the bilateral economic relationship. But few tangible outcomes eventuated, raising the prospect that much of Trump’s lack of action may be explained away by claiming, “just wait – the deal’s coming!” One might even think that America’s cannier rivals may relish the thought of holding out the prospect of a deal that never gets finalised, while quietly securing their own interests all the while. Meanwhile the Predictometer continues to hover at the lower reaches of the dial.

America’s role in Asia

The overwhelming attention paid to Trump in Asia underlines the United States’ ongoing centrality to the region’s security and prosperity. Allies and rivals alike have worked overtime to gain access to the Administration’s inner circle and the President himself, and even countries that have been largely sanguine about the new President have adopted a low-profile response to Trump’s volatile personality.

Trump’s seeming refusal to be bound by convention has translated into an unexpected strategic advantage. His December phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen raised understandable questions about how many of the region’s diplomatic conventions might actually be called into question, and what impact this might have on the region as a whole.

Similarly, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion that a blockade might be one response to China’s base-building in the South China Sea during his confirmation hearing gave worrying clarity about what a more muscular American response to China might look like. Little wonder that to Chinese commentators the United States has begun to look like a revisionist power, casting Beijing into the role of an internationalist, status quo power.

Since taking office, Trump’s record in the region has looked much more conventional. His clear assurances to China and Japan, and holding course on South Korea’s THAAD deployment, have taken the heat out of some of the fevered speculation in the region. But no-one has been completely reassured that these more conventional stances are policy-based and enduring rather than being simply temporary and subject to sudden shifts.

Justifiable fears linger over both the knock-on and demonstration effects of such sudden shifts. Asian strategists continue to ponder the outcomes of an inscrutable America, be it a sudden trade war or military confrontation that could bring the region to its knees economically, or the gradual drift to managed trade have the same effect over the long-term.

It is hard to imagine that such uncertainty will not have eventual effects on the United States’ regional role. The 2016 Presidential election emphatically established that the liberal internationalism underpinning America’s post-war role is vulnerable to rising forces within domestic politics in the United States. In a region already well practiced at hedging against strategic risk, moves are well underway to bolster the region’s resilience against a more unpredictable United States.

Several parties to the TPP continue to work on contingency planning to see what elements of that deal can be salvaged, while many have increased the tempo of their work on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). A flurry of shuttle diplomacy has accompanied Trump’s first 100 days – not just to the United States but within the region also. While several states have issued strong calls for a continued regional leadership role for the United States, few seem to be taking this for granted.

It is also likely that the pervasive uncertainty concerning the United States’ regional role will provide the space for China to continue to fill the void of the region’s policy entrepreneur. One of the marked trends since the turn of the century has been Beijing’s growing sense of self-assurance in proposing new initiatives and institutions for the region. While these have been met with variable reactions from states in the region, there is little doubt that they are steadily dominating the regional agenda. Trump’s repudiation of the TPP and uncertainty over his commitment to Obama’s rebalance will only increase the sense that the big thinking about Asia’s future is being done in Beijing, not Washington. One of the big questions about the next four years is whether Japan, Australia or ASEAN will step up to contribute to a contest of ideas in the region, or whether they will allow China to set the pace.

One other question remains, and it concerns not so much America’s role in Asia but Asia’s role in America. More precisely, to what extent will Trump’s instincts be tamed as he confronts the reality of how much of his domestic agenda is at stake as a consequence of its commitments in Asia?

This certainly appears to be the case with China, where the pragmatists in his inner circle seem to have made strong arguments against following through on his incendiary rhetoric about currency manipulation and sudden tariffs. As several of the economists contributing to this collection have pointed out, on issues such as climate change and energy, domestic and global dynamics have acquired their own momentum, making Trump’s impact less likely to have a major impact. At the end of the day, the richness and texture of America’s many interests in Asia may make even this most unconventional of Presidents accept a status quo role for the United States in Asia.

The future of Asia

If the first 100 days are anything to go by, it is highly likely that the Trump Presidency will accelerate several trends driving the evolution of Asia’s strategic order. In Asia, rapid economic growth – history’s most powerful driver of strategic change – long pre-dates the advent of America’s 45th President, and will continue to transform Asia’s strategic landscape whomever occupies the White House. But the United States has hitherto played a moderating role on full-blown rivalry and balancing in Asia, thanks to its overwhelming military power and the perceived steadiness of its commitment to regional order. Trump’s rise has shaken confidence in America’s ability and will to stabilise the region.

Trump provides China the space and legitimacy to double down on its bid for regional leadership. The 45th President underpins all of Beijing’s well-honed messages about why the region needs new leadership: America’s commitment is uncertain; its motives are suspect; and its instincts ultimately don’t have Asia’s interests at heart. Once Xi Jinping has this year’s National People’s Congress out of the way, expect a hyper-energised diplomatic campaign by China.

China’s ability to make hay, of course, depends on how the rest of the region reacts to its leadership bid. Beijing’s own credentials are not without problems, largely of its own making. China’s assertions of its prerogatives in the East and South China Seas have raised many concerns in the region about what Chinese regional leadership may actually entail. The resoluteness with which Asian countries are engaging in both internal (through arms purchases) and external balancing (through investing in alliances and strategic partnerships) attests to just how unprepared they are to accede to China’s bid for uncontested primacy in Asia.

The major question remains whether Asia will evolve a genuinely multipolar order in the decades ahead. There is no question that China is prepared to play the role of an all-round great power; the uncertainty is over whether the other great power candidates are willing to step up. Will Japan continue to shed its pacifist constitution? Can India evolve a strategic personality outside of its narrow, self-interested concerns and then back these with real heft? Will Russia be drawn into an Asia-focused role?

Will swing states such as Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia be prepared to explore and invest in multipolarity, in the context of doubts over American leadership and worries over the prospects of Chinese leadership? While it’s hard to be confident about answering any of these questions, it is likely that few countries in the region will be content to allow their strategic future to be determined by either an undefined Chinese leadership or an uncertain Beijing-Washington entente.

The political prominence that Trump’s rise has given to regional economic dynamics will only reinforce the shift from neoliberal principles to geoeconomics in Asia during the Trump Presidency. The willingness of regional powers to use economic instruments to pursue their rivalry may sublimate some of the more aggressive, military forms of competition, but will ultimately distort economic activity and damage the region’s economic development prospects.

Some elements of geoeconomic competition may be beneficial, such as possible infrastructure rivalry between Japan and China, while other aspects could be dangerous, particularly for smaller economies likely to become subject to strong investment-led campaigns to lock them into dependence on one powerful economy or another.

The Trump era will also likely accelerate the steady marginalisation of the region’s institutions. The record shows that, rather than being able to moderate rising rivalries in Asia, the region’s various institutions have become victims of competition and controversy. They will be further weakened as they come to be seen as irrelevant to the issues that are really preoccupying the regional agenda. It is hard to see any enthusiasm for renovating any of the Asia Pacific’s regional organisations, and even less for creating new structures. This raises the pressing question of how the region and the world will manage the uneven progression towards multipolarity.

These are just some of the questions posed by Trump’s first 100 days to the world’s most dynamic region. You may have others. The richness of these essays reinforces just how much is at stake, and how many possible futures may play out over the next four years. You can be guaranteed that ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific will continue to be an unparalleled resource for interpreting the region’s big questions and trends.

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team