Donald Trump is more successful in contesting Chinese influence in Asia than Barack Obama was.
Far from declining, the US position in Asia has strengthened under Trump and is now threatened not by the actions or words of Trump but by the often hysterical denunciations of Trump coming from the liberal American media, faithfully echoed by their intellectual fellow travellers in Australia.
Trump’s powerful State of the Union speech this week outlined a coherent vision for his government at home and abroad. It demonstrates that the talented group of people Trump has assembled in his cabinet and in the White House have succeeded in fashioning Trump’s populism into a governing program.
Kim Beazley, Australia’s most astute strategic observer of the US, has argued that Trump doesn’t have policies, just attitudes. That was true of Trump the candidate and in the early and chaotic days of the administration. But now the administration, top-heavy with competent, shrewd, deeply experienced generals, has taken Trump’s attitudes and transformed them into effective policies.
Trump’s State of the Union address was coherent, bold and convincing. Domestically, Trump cited tax cuts, eliminating red tape and assisting American business as his administration’s priorities. And he was able to cite robust economic growth, plummeting unemployment, especially among Hispanics and blacks, and record-busting stock market levels as evidence of the effectiveness of this approach.
He left unmentioned the question of the budget deficit, but in the short term the economy is responding to a pro-business Republican President. It is Trump’s performance internationally which is most important to Australia. And here Trump’s speech, and much more important his actual actions, demonstrate that his administration is maturing into a mainstream Republican regime, albeit with sometimes undisciplined rhetoric and more robust than usual.
The State of the Union speech may thus mark a defining inflection point in the development of the Trump story.
The big question mark now is not Trump’s intentions or his performance, but whether the hatred of him by the liberal establishment in the US will be enough to destroy his presidency and whether this American domestic political hatred will spill over sufficiently into international thinking to render Trump much less effective in Asia than he could be.
A little over two weeks travelling through India and Southeast Asia has reinforced to me how strongly the Trump administration is performing in Asia, after a terrible start, and how much of a contradiction this is to elite media perceptions. Yet the elite media perceptions have the potential to overwhelm reality.
In both India and Southeast Asia I was told by key strategic thinkers that it is not Trump but his American demonisers who are most effectively undermining the US position in Asia.
Consider these comments in an article in the Nikkei Asian Review by Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large and a former head of its foreign ministry: “American liberal writers are echoing the Chinese line that America is the past and China the future. This … does not stand up to close examination … Like his predecessors, Trump has placed priority on relations with China, but unlike Obama who naively downplayed competition in the hope it would make the Chinese more cooperative, Trump has emphasised both aspects of the relationship.
“Trump has also reaffirmed US alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. There is no sign his administration will let China’s claims in the East and South China seas go unchallenged.”
These words give expression to a very widely held view across Southeast Asia and indeed North Asia and South Asia. As usual the Asian view is completely different from the European view or the view of the east and west coasts of the US. Asians typically prefer a Republican president, Europeans typically prefer a Democrat. The Pacific is a Republican ocean, the Atlantic is a Democrat ocean. Asian governments like Republicans because they are pro-business, strong on defence, emphasise US allies and are more hard-headed and less simplistic on human rights than Democrats.
Certainly Trump as a candidate, and in his early days in office, gave every cause for concern. He trash-talked America’s alliances, was incredibly undisciplined in the things he said about nuclear policy and looked and sounded deeply unstable and ignorant. But in the international arena his performance since then has belied all this.
He had the sense to appoint a symbol of rock-solid stability and probity in Mike Pence as his Vice-President. And then he populated his cabinet with retired generals who had deep experience of Asia and of all the complexities of geo-strategic politics more generally. These appointments more than anything have been a true guide to Trump administration actions, especially in Asia.
Trump talks a lot about China’s misuse of trade rules to obtain unfair advantage over America. Some see this as Trump abandoning free trade. Yet no one seriously questions that Trump’s charges against Beijing are true. As one American official puts it: “America makes what it can sell, China sells what it can make.”
The Chinese practise ruthless mercantilism. Trump’s remedies may or may not be effective but, far from “fake news” or “alternate facts”, Trump is engaging with a reality that has defeated previous US presidents.
Trump has done much better in Southeast Asia than Obama did. The critical nation of Thailand is the key example. The Obama administration, while courting the military regime in Egypt, turned a bitter hand of rejection against the military government in Thailand, which had installed itself to prevent civil war between the red shirts and yellow shirts.
This strategically foolish rebuff by Washington of America’s old ally in Bangkok greatly diminished US influence and drove Thailand into Beijing’s strategic embrace. The Trump administration has done everything it can to reverse this. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Thailand, ending Obama’s demented policy of denying senior US visits, and Thailand’s military leader was invited to the White House for meetings with Trump and the rest of the administration. The first Southeast Asian leaders Trump phoned after winning the election were those of The Philippines and Thailand, America’s two treaty allies, and Singapore, the US’s closest Southeast Asian collaborator.
Just recently Defence Secretary Jim Mattis was in Indonesia and Vietnam. The Trump administration has intensified US diplomacy towards Hanoi, with substantial defence contracts in the works. Vietnam’s leadership itself, like that of Japan, made a beeline for Washington when Trump took office and has gone out of its way to conclude trade deals with the US. Asian leaders find Trump’s transactional outlook perfectly understandable and reasonable and they respond to it positively, seeing the opportunities as well as the difficulties.
Meanwhile the Trump administration has increased the tempo of US freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea and has made some significant headway even with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila. This is partly because only the US can help The Philippines with its Islamist insurgency in Mindanao. It is partly because other Asian powers have been encouraging The Philippines to reconnect with Washington.
Trump’s biggest single mistake in the region was withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership which, unlike previous trade deals, would actually have imposed some serious discipline on the US’s Asian trade partners. But even here Trump is now holding out the prospect of the US re-entering an improved TPP.
It is absurd, and woefully inaccurate analysis, for Australian commentators to conclude that China has won the battle for influence against the US in Southeast Asia. As Andrew Nathan comments in Foreign Affairs: “China’s neighbours … fear Chinese dominance and tend to side with India, Japan and especially the United States whenever these powers are available.”
On North Korea, everyone in Asia understands that the problem is Kim Jong-un, not Donald Trump. Any American president in office today would face the same potentially existential dilemma: does he allow a dictator as ruthless and reckless as Kim to acquire the ability to kill millions of Americans on the US mainland with nuclear weapons? Trump’s bluster has its pluses and minuses. It has not made the situation appreciably worse and it has helped focus the Chinese on the need to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang, which they have a terrible record of flouting.
Trump has also undertaken reasonable and defensible steps in other parts of the world. Reducing funds to the notoriously political UN organisation that assists Palestinians is more than reasonable. If UNRWA does such wonderful work surely the oil-soaked Arab states can fund it. Similarly, Palestinian organisations which advocate and glorify terrorism deserve to have their funding cut.
Anything good that the Trump administration has done, or wants to do, could be undone by domestic American politics. The special prosecutor process in the US is a distorting and often grotesque beast which frequently yields nothing about the substance it was set up to investigate but coerces a number of process convictions along the way. And it becomes intensely partisan.
No one knows what the Mueller inquiry will yield but so far, amid oceans of leaks, nothing remotely criminal has come out about the Trump campaign and the Russians. What the Trump enemies are fixated on now is not so much the Russians but the hope that the byzantine special prosecutor process could yield some kind of obstruction of justice, or other Washington process charge, to trip Trump up. America has not retreated from Asia. Trump does not want America to retreat from Asia. But the hyper-partisan hatreds of American politics, faithfully echoed in Australia, might yet compromise the US position in Asia in a way that would be wholly destructive for Australia.