Donald Trump's Asia stance likely to further increase tensions
In the final days of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a recurring talking point from his supporters was that electing the reality TV star would avert war with Russia.
During the election, he insisted on his desire to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on issues such as Syria and the fight against Islamic State.
He has made no such marquee promises where Asian leaders are concerned.
In fact, he seems to have a more provocative approach to leaders of Asian nations, whether they are long-term allies or rivals.
During the campaign he vowed to make Japan and South Korea pay for the US’s long-standing military presence, despite the fact that Tokyo and Seoul have made substantial contributions for decades.
His decision to speak to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen upended 40 years of policy observed by Western powers, drawing ire from mainland China. More recently Mr Trump has engaged in Twitter tough-talk, shrugging off Pyongyang’s plans to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, despite informed analysis that suggests the North Koreans are making strides towards this goal.
His more forceful approach to Asia stands in eerie contrast to his disposition towards another geopolitical power: Russia.
President Barack Obama was accused of being too timid or preoccupied with issues such as Syria to focus fully on his vaunted pivot to the Asian region. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was once the centrepiece of Mr Obama’s strategy for the region, appears dead on arrival, a victim of the backlash against globalisation that helped propel Mr Trump to office.
In his time, Mr Obama favoured dialogue and a two-lane approach towards trade and politics. When China and the US disagreed about security and diplomacy, he purred reassurances on trade.
Mr Trump, on the other hand, appears to be paving the way for more overt competition with China, which has been, in the President-elect’s words, “taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade”.
The Trump pivot to Asia will likely see more tension. If Russian-US troubles over matters such as Syria and the US election interference go off the boil, expect Mr Trump to have more attention for competition with China.
What this sort of charged environment means for Australia will be known only in time. Mr Trump’s zero-sum mentality on international affairs, however, suggests regional powers, including Australia, will have more need to rely on themselves to confront security and diplomatic challenges.
Mr Trump made his most recent China-critical comments, predictably, on Twitter. If, as intellectual Marshall McLuhan observed, the “medium is the message”, Mr Trump’s Twitter diplomacy carries with it an inherent lack of stability.
It’s also worth asking, if Mr Trump gives Moscow the power to shape US foreign policy, however subtly, will Russia also benefit from more US tension in Asia?
If Mr Trump goes full demagogue on the subject of China, the risk isn’t simply to relations between the White House and Beijing, but to the public in the West.
As his campaign proved, keeping the public in a state of excitement is part of his act. Historically, many Americans saw China’s rise as an implicit rebuke of weaker America. In other words, they blamed their own leaders.
With Mr Trump coming to power on a promise to restore “greatness”, he will be tempted to continue to blame China for America’s ills.
There is a worrying prospect he could turn the public in the US – and in other Western democracies such as Australia – against China. This would be ugly and unnecessary.
For countries that want to ensure their economies remain competitive in the face of a new rising power, the best course of action is smart investment, strategic tariffs and proper industrial and technology policy.
Engaging in populist bluster that scapegoats a foreign nation would be a mistake. Unfortunately, we can’t rule this scenario out for Mr Trump.
The story Donald Trump’s Asia stance likely to further increase tensions first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.