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In trying to win over America, Trump risks losing Asia

As Donald J Trump assumed the mantle of the United States presidency on a cold Washington day on Jan 20, the world began to feel the chill of what his “America first” vision will mean for the US’ role and place in the global order. This anxiety is acutely felt in South-east Asia, a region that has been at the heart of major power dynamics from the colonial period through the Cold War, and now caught in between a seemingly intensifying Sino-US rivalry.

In trying to win over America, Trump risks losing Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Tuesday. Mr Xi’s call for an ‘open global economy’ stands in stark contrast to United States President Donald Trump’s inward-looking inauguration address on Friday. Photo: Reuters

As Donald J Trump assumed the mantle of the United States presidency on a cold Washington day on Jan 20, the world began to feel the chill of what his “America first” vision will mean for the US’ role and place in the global order. This anxiety is acutely felt in South-east Asia, a region that has been at the heart of major power dynamics from the colonial period through the Cold War, and now caught in between a seemingly intensifying Sino-US rivalry.

US presidents have traditionally used their inaugural addresses to outline new directions in US foreign policy. President Dwight Eisenhower understood that “America’s strength and security (was) a trust upon which rests the hope of free men everywhere”. President Richard Nixon sought an “open world ... in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation”. President Ronald Reagan promised to “match loyalty with loyalty ... (and) strive for mutually beneficial relations”.

It is therefore telling that Mr Trump delivered an inaugural address — the shortest since 1979 at 1,454 words — that will long be remembered for its insular focus and possibly a signalling of upending decades of the US foreign policy consensus. By using variants of the word “America” 35 times, he made it clear which country would be his sole priority — his own.

By painting the US’ economic downturn as a zero-sum game in which the rest of the world has gained at the expense of the US, Mr Trump is sending notice of the US’ intention to reconsider every trade and security commitment the US has made, including “sacred cows” such as the US-Japan security alliance. As Mr Trump exhorts that “we will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first”, the region will look at his first major address warily and in fear of what this might mean for the US$139.5 billion (S$199 billion) of US foreign direct investments across South-east Asia (as of 2012). Will US firms follow the lead of Ford, General Motors and Carrier in succumbing to the new administration’s pressure to “reshore” and cut back new investments in the region?

To be sure, the region will struggle to square Mr Trump’s early signs of indifference to South-east Asia with the US’ deep and long-standing economic and political roots in the region.

Unfortunately, Mr Trump’s oblique reference to the US strategic commitment to Asia-Pacific security puts the security umbrella that underwrote regional economic growth and stability for the past five decades under a cloud of uncertainty.

South-east Asia looks set to face a double blow. Mr Trump’s move to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has sucked the air out of the region, which had harboured high hopes that the 12-member, high-quality free-trade agreement would breathe new life into the sluggish Asia-Pacific economy. This sense of pessimism is compounded by rising protectionist sentiments in the US that will no doubt negatively impact the competitiveness of South-east Asian exports to the US.

On the other hand, the increasingly hostile US messaging towards China on some of the latter’s “red lines” — the South China Sea and Taiwan issues — will have ramifications on the region’s security as a result of destabilised Sino-US relations. Trump’s appointments of China hawks to strategic positions such as the Director of the National Trade Council, the Secretary of Commerce and the US Trade Representative, and his willingness to question the gospel of the “one-China” policy will no doubt unease many regional leaders who are themselves doubting the US’ continued strategic commitment to Asia.

The net result is bad news for the region’s economy and worse news for the region’s security. At a time when South-east Asia looks to the US to anchor peace and stability, it has instead gone the opposite direction in ruffling China’s feathers while dealing a major blow to free trade in the region.

Overall, Mr Trump’s reactionary and inward-looking address stands in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s clarion defence of globalisation in his speech at the World Economic Forum just three days earlier. Mr Xi’s call for “growing an open global economy to share opportunities and interests through opening-up and achieve win-win outcomes” positions China as the new standard-bearer for free trade and market economy.

One could look back to Mr Xi’s own “inaugural address” following his appointment as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2012 to understand this surprising development. This was the very first occasion in which Mr Xi outlined his desire to “realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. It was in essence an unequivocal battle cry to “make China great again”.

However, unlike Mr Trump’s calls to “make America great again” by building Fortress America through physical and metaphorical trade and immigration walls, Mr Xi’s “great rejuvenation” strategy will see China standing “firmly and powerfully among all nations around the world and make a greater contribution to mankind”.

This divergence of trajectories between the US and China would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In the five years after delivering that much publicised speech, Mr Xi has translated his vision by laying the foundations of “Pax Sinica”, with grand projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and founding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, widening China’s strategic footprint around the region and the world.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump has taken the US out of the TPP, and is reassessing US security commitments in the region for the sake of penny pinching, oblivious to the political and strategic costs of his actions. The US has struggled in the past decade to play catch-up in Asia to China as Beijing uses its bottomless war chest and guile to win over friends and sceptics.

Mr Trump’s initial moves have done little to reassure friends of US leadership and strategic endurance in the region. The fact that regional perception of US trustworthiness continues to slip since Mr Trump’s electoral victory last November is worrisome. China will most certainly take advantage of this leadership vacuum to gain more ground in the regional friendship sweepstakes. After all, Southeast Asia’s affection and acquiescence are more important to China’s global ambitions than the US achieving Mr Trump’s vision of “greatness”.

For better or worse, South-east Asia will have to tip-toe around a strategic landmine in the next four years, ensnarled between two major powers bent on making their countries “great again”. Mr Trump should make sure that his “America first” approach does not harken back to the isolationist and pre-globalisation era, when the US turned its back on world affairs and trade. Hopefully, “America first” does not mean “everyone else last”, especially South-east Asia.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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