Commentary

Trump’s Asia retreat leaves room for new regional order

Trump’s Asia retreat leaves room for new regional order
President Donald Trump announcing his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, on June 1. Analysts believe Asia is well-balanced to survive Mr Trump’s America First policy. Photo: The New York Times
Published: 4:00 AM, June 20, 2017
Updated: 7:38 AM, June 20, 2017

United States President Donald Trump’s move to pull America out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership has raised questions over Washington’s reliability as a world leader.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently concluded that the US under Mr Trump is not a reliable partner and that Europe should ‘take our fate into our own hands’.

For Asia, assurances by several US officials that Washington remains committed to the region have not quelled concerns of a lower level of engagement by the US. What are the implications of Mr Trump’s America First approach for Asia amid a rising China?

TODAY’s Eileen Ng (eileenng@mediacorp.com.sg) speaks to three analysts: Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute; Dr Kanti Prasad Bajpai, Wilmar Professor on Asian Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Mr Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy.

 

Do Mr Trump’s actions and comments since taking office suggest an isolationist approach? If so, is this a reflection of his America First policy?

Mr Ian Bremmer (IB): An America First foreign policy was always meant to send a strong message to leaders around the world that he does not consider their interests a priority. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) — and his daily rhetoric — are intended to broadcast his absolutist, man-of-action approach to negotiation.

That is his aggressive style as a businessman and something his supporters like after eight years of the much more cerebral and cautious Barack Obama. Trump expects that raw US power will provide the influence he needs when he needs it. And that will work with some countries, though fewer than he thinks.

Dr Tang Siew Mun (TSM): The mounting doubts will increase as the US continues to turn inward and dismiss multilateral cooperation. How could the US expect to remain a global power when it appears to be turning its back to the world at every turn? The Trump administration has pulled the US from the TPP and the Paris climate change accord, and is said to be reviewing its membership in the World Trade Organisation.

The fact that Germany and Canada have openly stated the need for alternative leadership should be a wake-up call to the US.

It is the US’ prerogative to privilege America First at the expense of its global responsibilities, but Washington should not expect to be treated with the same respect and deference if it is no longer interested or capable of sustaining the global order.

Dr Kanti Prasad Bajpai (KPB): Trump’s record is quite mixed. On the one hand, he continues to talk about America First. He has also pulled out of the TPP and the Paris climate change accord.

On the other hand, he has engaged Japan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The signal seems to be that these are his priority areas.

He has not paid much attention to Latin America, Africa, South Asia, or South-east Asia. It is probably too early to say he is isolationist, but at this point he is focused on a few key relationships.

Part of the problem is that he has so many domestic political battles on his hands, including investigations on his administration’s links with Russia and his firing of former FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) director James Comey. These battles are a distraction.

 

How will an inward-looking America affect the current regional order? Is this an indication that countries in the Asia Pacific can now expect less from the US as a partner?

IB: Yes, up to a point. The fear among some US allies that the US won’t have staying power is not new. It has been building for many years, especially after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made direct foreign policy intervention much less popular in the United States.

In part, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was designed to reassure Asian allies of Washington’s long-term commitment. Trump has upended that, as he has so many things.

TSM: To be fair, American trustworthiness has been declining even before the Trump administration. In fact, the US has a history of either seeking special exemptions, pulling out or failing to ratify major international treaties and accords it took a leading role in negotiating: Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The TPP and Paris Accord pullback adds to this pattern of failing to rally American domestic support for its international agenda.

The US can only regain trust literally brick by brick.

Many Asian leaders, especially those in Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam got burned by the TPP fiasco and this very painful lesson will restrain their proclivity in expending political capital to support future US initiatives.

KPB: If the US cedes leadership in Asia, clearly China will be the main beneficiary. In recent months, China has positioned itself as a global leader.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could be the vehicles for China’s leadership. China might even seek to join a new TPP without the US.

Having said that, there are signs that regional states are coming together independent of the US and China.

But clearly the Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations)-led view of regional order, in which Asean is the convener of regional order arrangements, is not the only possibility.

A second possibility is that the US will agree to a power-sharing arrangement with China, a G-2, in which the two big powers take the lead in determining the future of norms and institutions in South-east Asia.

A third possibility is that Australia, India, Japan, and some South-east Asian countries including Vietnam will cooperate more — with or without US support — to provide a balance to China without constructing an alliance.

 

What will be the impact of a less involved US on the South-east Asian region, especially on Singapore?

IB: Trump creates much more room in Asia for China to expand its influence. That is particularly problematic for Singapore, which does not need major investment from China, but which does need enforceable rule of law to ensure that globalisation continues to fuel Singapore’s prosperity.

TSM: The silver lining for the rest of the world lies in waking up to the realisation that the sun does not revolve around the US.

We are beginning to see Germany and other states stepping up. For example, Japan, working with Australia and New Zealand has taken up the mantle to revive the TPP as “TPP 11”. The US is not the only game in town, and we must get over this mental barrier that international cooperation is contingent on US leadership.

Although we would like to have the return of the “old America”, and if that is not possible, at least in the near term, we must then work closer with the other major powers and friends. The upside of the “rise of Trump” is the apparent retreat of the US may give rise to a more open and collective form of leadership that is less US-centric.

If this comes to pass, this might mean the beginning of the end of the US as “No 1”, which might very well be Trump’s legacy.

KPB: This is not an easy time for Singapore, particularly in its relations with China and the US. But Singapore will continue to look for a balanced relationship with China and the US and diversify its relations with other powers.

A key concern is to make sure Asean stays united and relevant. Fortunately, Singapore does not threaten anyone and has reserves of goodwill in both China and the US.

Singapore will probably seek to lower its diplomatic visibility for a while and work more behind the scenes with key diplomatic interlocutors.