The first days of Donald Trump’s presidency have been as dramatic as they promised to be. His inaugural address painted a dark picture of America, he got into a petulant spat with the media about the number of people who attended his inauguration, did not take kindly to the women marches against him across the US – and he passed controversial executive orders on abortion and Obamacare.
The foreign policy front has been turbulent as well. Trump formally ditched the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact of 12 countries that represent 40% of the world’s economy. He has continued his confrontational line on China. His press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to back Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s view that China should not be allowed access to the artificial islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea. “The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said. “It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
China reacted firmly. Its foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying asked the US to “respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea.” The Chinese media had earlier said that the US would have to “wage war” to block China’s access to dispute islands; Hua, in more understated terms, conveyed that “China’s resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights…will not change.”
Leaders in Asia will watch this unfolding situation carefully as Trump’s reaction to China has a huge bearing on the continent’s geopolitical loyalties and its future. As Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s former ambassador to the US, notes many Asians are watching the great power contest and are hedging their bets. The US has been the dominant power in Asia, “the principal provider of both security and economic related public goods”, as Evan Feigenbaum has put it. It is now up against a rising China which believes its “time has come”, in the words of David Shambaugh, and is looking to challenge American primacy, that is expressed in its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Trump believes that China is getting the better deal of trade arrangements, that it is not opening its markets to American products while manipulating its own currency to boost exports. In an article in special issue of Asia Policy that dealt with “Assessing US-Asia relations in a Time of Transition”, Shambaugh mentions the several issues that US and China do not see eye to eye on. These include US concern about the strategic balance in the region, the investment climate in China, Chinese investments in sensitive technological sectors and China’s “cybersecurity and broader technological espionage” in the US. China is wary of “Western hostile forces” and their attempt to subvert Communist Party rule.
There is also a great deal of interdependence with China that Trump will be continually reminded of by his national security bureaucracy. As Shambaugh relates, US-China bilateral trade is worth $659 billion, China is one of the US’ fastest growing export markets, US investments in China are worth $75 billion and 328,547 Chinese students studied in US universities and vocational schools in 2015-16, bringing in $11.43 billion in revenue. Chinese tourists also spent $24 billion in the US in 2014. There are as a result “a growing number of stakeholders on both sides”.
The key puzzle in the US-China relationship, as Shambaugh puts it, is “how to assert one’s interests while managing a competitive relationship so that it does not become a fully adversarial one”? He says “neither Washington nor Beijing possesses the experience or a playbook for managing a relationship that is so deeply interdependent yet simultaneously filled with complex bilateral frictions and geostrategic rivalry.”
Scholars have offered Trump a fair bit of advice on dealing with Asia. In December the Asia Society issued a ‘briefing book’ titled Advice for the 45th U.S. President: Opinions from Across the Pacific, which brings together the view of analysts and former practitioners. The common thread in the commentaries was the need for the US to reassure its allies and partners in Asia of its commitment to the security of the continent in the face of a rising China. Joe Hockey, Australia’s ambassador to the US, indicated that Washington is scarcely in a position not to be involved and engaged in Asia (since Trump has spoken about scaling back American commitments abroad). Hockey said “two-thirds of the world’s economic growth is coming out of Asia, so [the U.S.] has to engage…We’re going to see at least 500 million additional people emerge in the middle class in Asia over the next 10 years, so if you want American manufacturing to turn into American exports, and then turn into consumption in Asia, you need to engage with Asia and trade with Asia.”
What Asia wants in this view is for the US to “just show up” – to demonstrate that it is still invested in the Asian balance of power to convince fence-sitters and prevent them going over to China. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte announced his country’s “separation” from the US in October. Chee points out that “Cambodia and Laos, and to some extent Thailand, Brunei, and Malaysia, have all moved into the Chinese orbit without fanfare.” To prevent this slide and provide reassurance, Chee wants Trump to “attend every ASEAN regional meeting, such as the ASEAN-U.S. Summit and the East Asia Summit”. India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon writes in the Asia Society publication that two things that leaders in the Asia-Pacific region wish to hear and see from Trump “are an assurance that the United States will continue to provide and underwrite security in the Asia-Pacific and that it will remain a benign hegemon, opening its economy to friends and allies.” “Without this confidence”, Menon says, “Asian leaders could turn to other expedients, and to China, for the prosperity and security they seek.”
Tillerson’s posturing on the South China Sea will reassure America’s Asian partners up to a point. They will wait to see if Washington will sustain this when Beijing pushes back. Barack Obama announced a “rebalance” to Asia but there is a sense that his administration “over-promised and under-delivered”. Asian countries, particularly Singapore, Vietnam, India and Australian, will want Trump to get his signalling to Beijing right i.e. convey that Washington is prepared to stand by its partners while ensuring hostilities do not escalate. Scholars have elsewhere made the case that a US-China conflict cannot be ruled out.
Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, writes that the fundamental issue is that reducing strategic distrust between the two countries The US needs to evaluate its assumption that “‘China will change its political systems once it prospers economically’” or “‘China will vie with the United States for leadership once it becomes powerful’”. “Meanwhile, China needs to better explain to the American public and the world at large its long-term goals and intentions.” He says both sides must quickly agree on a priority list and work schedule for 2017 and convene dialogues that clarify long-term intentions on “sensitive issues” like South China Sea, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, stability across the Taiwan Strait and cyber security. They should also “find practical ways to cope with problem areas such as “currency exchange rates, business environments, trade regimes, and legal disputes.” Wang even sees scope for cooperation. He reckons Chinese companies can invest in building US infrastructure that Trump is keen on and that China would welcome US support and partnership in its One Belt and One Road initiative.
US-China relations are a long way from adopting such constructive approaches.
Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @SushilAaron