Uncertain Futures: Trump’s Foreign Policy in Asia

by Isabel Barrios Pérez-Coca

26 May 2017

Isabel Barrios Pérez-Coca examines relations between the Trump administration and East Asian countries, explaining why the future looks so unsure. 

Let’s be clear: right now, the US is the biggest threat to global stability, although it would be unfair to say that Donald Trump and his administration are solely responsible for this. The seeds of America’s current status as the ultimate threat have been growing for a while, rooted in American exceptionalism and the expansion of the military industrial complex. The US saw itself as the self-appointed paladin of stability and Western values, which embodied the ultimate goal all nations should strive for – despite the fact that this so-called striving involved incursions into foreign countries to topple democratically elected leaders.

Trump’s dubious rhetoric has supposedly turned American focus inward and put its national interests first. The problem is that, for America, their national interests are necessarily global in scope. In order to secure the American superiority that forms the lynchpin of Trump’s supremacist agenda, they must exert control over other countries. Retreat is not an option. The Trump administration’s various manoeuvres to triangulate power in Asia try and balance the need to secure economic advantage via diplomatic means with a belligerent tendency towards displays of raw power. This makes his policy agenda incredibly hard to predict – but nonetheless, it’s worth taking a step back to examine the groundwork that Trump is laying for the future of relations between the US and East Asia.

A chaotic track-record.

Trump’s actions in Asia form a series of bewildering policy turns regarding the major players in the area that have thrown serious doubt on pundits’ ability to predict the next foreign policy steps the administration might make. However, the underlying thread in all of these seemingly random and ill-advised moves has been the attempt to consolidate US power abroad. There is another angle we should take into account too: the tendency of the Trump administration for misdirection, distraction and the ability to spin a media showcase. Behind most big Trump stories hides another that was not reported or did not get as much traction because it was simply less outrageous. We need only look to the two latest rich-straight-white-man horror instalments in the Trump saga to see this phenomenon at work. Whilst the new administration flounders chaotically, the more experienced forces in the Republican party push through legislation that’s less headline-grabbing but no less damaging. Trump recently signed an executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” – actually aimed at providing sweeping legal protections for people to claim religious exemptions. While the Congress voted on the replacement of the Affordable Care Act; and whilst F.B.I. Director James Comey was being fired, a Republican-controlled Texas legislative passed a bill to allow adoption and foster care agencies to deny services based on faith, sexual orientation and marital status.

Such duplicity is also apparent in Trump’s dealings with Asian leaders. They speak to an administration pulled every which way by its different policy priorities – incapable of deciding a single agenda, and more than capable of regular volte-faces and double-dealings. During his campaign, Trump was extremely critical of China, North Korea and South Korea, and the then-newly-elected Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines had broken off all relations with the US. Half a year later, Trump’s stance on Asia is unrecognisable. His inviting Duterte to the White House is the latest twist of this strange path towards the demise of American democracy.

“He’s doing a great job”: Trump and Duterte.

You might have heard about Rodrigo Duterte: the President of the Philippines who was elected last year after an election campaign based on the pledge to eliminate the country’s drug problem – by any means necessary. Duterte has sanctioned vigilante death squads and summary police executions, offering cash prices to citizens for drug users and dealers (the price was higher if they were dead). As of now the victims of Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war number in the thousands, 2000 on the hands of the police alone.

Duterte promised to not kill those who surrendered, but there have been several documented cases of people who voluntarily surrendered and were later killed in police operations or vigilante attacks. Amnesty International cites evidence that the police in the Philippines is in fact paying officers and third parties  to carry out killings. To justify many of the extrajudicial killings the police say that the victims engaged in nanlaban – meaning they resisted arrest or ‘fought it out’.

The Obama administration was critical of Duterte’s war on drugs, which prompted the latter to break off relations between the two countries and use extremely colourful language when referring to the US.

It is not surprising Trump likes him; in Duterte’s own words, him and Trump “are the same”. They are both authoritarian, they both court the support of the military. They style themselves as alpha leaders who gain popularity by rejecting the politesse of political discourse and courting outrage, ‘telling it like it is’. The invitation to the White House is seen by critics of both Duterte and Trump as an endorsement of his brutal drug war and a failure on the part of the US of defending human rights. Trump has also extended an invitation to the prime minister of Thailand, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has come under criticism for his limitation of civil liberties after the military coup in 2014 when he gained power. Traditionally the US has wanted to be seen to use its close bilateral relations with developing countries to advance the protection of human rights, but Trump seems eager to do away with this line of foreign policy.

Surprisingly, when asked about the invitation, Duterte has said he might be too busy to visit the White House. However, a man who has no qualms about saying things like he would be ‘happy to slaughter’ millions of drug addicts and that he would personally deal with a group of Islamist militants by eating them alive does not seem like the type to turn down a chance to parade his power on the world’s most scrutinised political stage. This bluff is macho power-posing at its finest. By ‘generously’ making time for Trump in his agenda, Duterte is signalling who’s the bigger man, the bigger boss. He’s setting the terms of the meeting, and trying to change the power dynamic. After all, Duterte might like Trump in a way he did not like Obama, but he has spent considerable foreign policy resources to woo China and realign his countries’ interests with the Chinese.

As for the rationale for the invitation, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus explained in an interview to ABC that the main purpose of extending this olive branch to the Philippines was to build alliances that might help tamp the threat from North Korea threat. However, this makes no sense on a strategic and pragmatic level. The Philippines has little – if nothing – to offer on that front – it is of little military or strategic importance when it comes to conflict in North Korea. The truth is, that among other things, the US needs the Philippines to be an ally in order to maintain some kind of influence over the region and in the South China Sea dispute.

Trade and security in China.

China is the biggest and most powerful player in Asia, and Trump is visibly intimidated. The administration’s relationship with China has been a rollercoaster since day one. Trump’s first presidential gaffe of calling Taiwan without talking to China first – or even notifying them – was quickly followed by dangerous military posturing in the South China Sea.

By looking at early posturing against Chinese displays of power, it seems that a crisis in the South China Sea was inevitable. Trump has repeatedly used China as a bogeyman in his campaign; he made early statements that China should have asked permission before building military complexes in the South China Sea Islands;  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson compared Chinese occupation of the islands with Russia’s invasion of Crimea. By the beginning of February, both countries had admitted that open conflict between them over the South China Sea was to be expected before Trump’s term was over. The waters have calmed since Trump and Tillerson’s visit to China, but the territorial disputes linger –  and so does US presence in the area.

The crux of the South China Sea conflict is its status as a major waterway, allowing trade access to fishing, but more importantly to the mineral, oil and gas reserves within its limits. The South China Sea is one of the territories – like Tibet and Taiwan – that the Communist Party of China (CPC) considers “historically Chinese”. Regardless of the validity of these claims, this motive answers to a deeply nationalistic sense of pride that sees the ownership of these territories not just as an economic boon, but as an affirmation of Chinese identity and superiority in the region. Therefore, Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea feed back into the approval ratings of the CPC and help secure its political power.

In the last few years, Beijing has – slowly but methodically – diverted the attention of the other governments involved in the dispute towards other more pressing topics, mainly economic. Malaysia is reorienting its foreign policy towards China, with the commissioning of 10 Chinese-made warships. Sino-Vietnamese relations are also on the mend, as Xi Jinping hosted the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Beijing and vowed to continue and strengthen their countries’ partnership. Even the Philippines mended the rocky Sino-Philippine relationship at the beginning of Duterte’s term, claiming that the Philippines would align its foreign policy towards a “China-led Asian economic development”. A traditional ally of the US, the Philippines was the gateway country that justified the presence of the US in the dispute. This is one of the reasons why the Trump administration is seeking to reestablish the relationship, and gain Duterte’s trust. Though they’ve talked about open conflict, the first steps to gaining influence on this major trade route have been decidedly diplomatic.

Indeed, despite the bellicose tone of their propaganda, and the military incursions in the South China Sea, the demands of economics has thus far trumped the administration’s need to throw its weight around in the area. Diplomatic relations with the asian colossus are are informed first and foremost by the economic opportunities – and risks – that it presents. Any indication that Trump is torn between fear of China’s economic rise and desire to get in on the money is a mere mirage. Stoking anti-Chinese sentiment among the electorate is so much hot air. He is a mercantilist, a savvy so-called self-made businessman, and he has lunged at the opportunity to make a profit in China.

A newly appointed Rex Tillerson visited China to try and pave the way for a later US-China summit, which took place at the beginning of April in Trump’s exclusive beachside resort of Mar-a-Lago. There, Trump sought to make good on several election promises, such as reducing the trade surplus with the US and bringing jobs back into the country. Both leaders struck a conciliatory tone. Though this is surprising in the context of Trump’s campaign, it becomes less so when you look at the close economic ties that bind the two countries. The US owes China the whopping sum of $1tn, and any drastic action by China to punish the US over it would damage both economies. The fact remains that the US is China’s biggest export market (4% of China’s GDP), and so Xi Jinping will take whatever trade agreement appeases Trump to avoid the dreaded raised trade barriers. (Now, the fact that the Chinese government provisionally granted Trump 38 trademarks makes a little more sense.) Their economies are so closely imbricated it would seem catastrophically foolish to engage in the promised conflict in the South China Sea, even to secure power over so vital a trade route. Only time will tell whether these promises, too, are hot air. But after the dropping of the MOAB ‘mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, and the wildly veering policy agendas, we cannot rule out the fact that, if it feels it’s on the back foot, this administration may ditch economic diplomacy for all-out war.

The Korean Peninsula.

During the meeting, both countries seemed to be in agreement over their “commitment to a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula”. This is interesting because China is effectively North Korea’s only ally, and regularly supplies Pyongyang with food and other necessities. China’s endorsement of Kim Jong-Un’s regime is said to be one of the main reasons why the US has not yet launched military action on North Korea. Despite its propping up the regime, China has also been involved in diffusing several of the crises between both countries, and Beijing’s patience for North Korean grandstanding appears to be running out. Kim Jong-Un lacks his father’s respect for the opinions of Chinese politicians, and since he succeeded his father the regularity of US-Korean crises has doubled. Xi Jinping himself is not a staunch supporter of North Korea, and it is not unreasonable to believe he would be willing to abandon this alliance should it become an imminent nuclear threat.

On the other hand, reports of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, which have been banded around for close to a decade now, are routinely exaggerated – particularly in the spring, when a series of North Korean national holidays regularly mean the ostentatious displays of military power. This year, they tested several intercontinental ballistic missiles off their coast. The range of these kind of missiles in theory means they could hit the US – but so far the failed tests far outnumber the successful launches, and the range has never been put to the test. Similarly, the US talks about the threat of North Korea, but has seldom treated it as a foreign policy priority. This faux-brinkmanship has become almost routine in US-North Korean relations.

So what’s new this time? In a word – Trump. Never before has a US President been so belligerent regarding North Korea. This brings a new sense of urgency to the matter; the less patience the US and China have with North Korea, the more pressing it is to find a viable solution for North Korea’s nuclear threat. Any kind of military strike on North Korea would be a death sentence for Seoul (and the US soldiers stationed there). The conventional course of action has always been sanctions and trying to freeze North Korea out, which might actually be more feasible now that China is willing to jump onboard.

However, unsurprisingly, Trump has been giving contradictory statements over North Korea, recently saying he would be up to meeting the North Korean leader under the right circumstances. Obama also said this during his first election campaign, so it wouldn’t be so outlandish for Trump to say the same. That is, if you leave aside the chilling comment he went on to make, praising Kim Jong-Un for his ability to do away with domestic political rivals. This comment adds to the worry of South Korean officials regarding their future under the protection of the American nuclear umbrella.

Going nuclear.

The US continues to enact policies under the auspices of nuclear disarmament, but the way it goes about it is unorthodox to say the least. Instead of disarming completely, the US has lent nuclear support to certain countries – their allies – in exchange for their support for non-proliferation. South Korea is one of these countries, protected from its belligerent northern neighbour by the aforementioned American nuclear umbrella. This protection meant that the US had some degree of influence and control in the area, as a sort of mafia-style exchange for its protection.

The problem is that Trump made it one of the main pillars of his campaign to denounce NATO and other military allies for “robbing the US blind”, and talked extensively about reducing nuclear aid, especially to South Korea, suggesting instead they develop their own nuclear weapons. This would mean a significant loss of influence in the area, and the loss of a strong economic partner. Of course, South Korea is not the only one who feels threatened by Trump’s rhetoric of pulling back resources to the US. Other countries will see it as encouragement to initiate their own nuclear programs, further augmenting the possibility of nuclear war.

An uncertain future.

A look at Trump’s actions in Asia leaves us with more questions than answers. Right now, North Korea is the main focus point of the White House, but we should not believe the narrative that everything Trump does in the area relates back to it.

The latest development on the Korean issue is the election of liberal Moon Jae-in, who wants to work for peace in the Korean Peninsula, and has already offered to establish talks with Beijing, Washington and even Pyongyang, if the opportunity arises. This adds another level to the North Korean missile crisis, since the North Korean government is unused to being invited to dialogue and cooperation. This will be a test for the four countries and the two new leaders (Moon and Trump), but this positive turn could turn sour if Trump does something unexpected and ill-advised. Like, for example, bombing North Korea. From what we know of Trump, this option can never be taken off the table.  We will not know what he plans to do in military terms until the last moment, as he has stated several times that he thinks divulging upcoming military movements is a mistake, and that “[he] just [doesn’t] want people to know what [his] thinking is.”

Regarding his broader relationship with the actors in the continent, it is telling how Trump seeks to mend and strengthen ties with countries with authoritarian leaders. He admires so-called strong leaders – Putin, Duterte, Kim Jong-un – and makes no secret of it. They all receive Trumpian praise for their “intelligence” and “guts to do what it takes”. A few months ago, these words could’ve been taken as unfortunate throwaway comments, but considering the domestic political scene in the US right now, perhaps it would do us well to give Trump’s remarks the weight they actually carry.

The twists and turns of Trump’s foreign policy can seem bewildering and confusing; they’re designed to be that way. As we have seen in his interactions with several Asian leaders, the way to keep track of Trump’s true intentions is to keep in mind that the Trump administration’s primary goal is to keep the money and the power coming in. Stripped of all pretence and artifice, this is what they want, and everything they do is aimed at achieving that goal. The unknown quantity is this: that when it comes to Asia, Trump’s drive to secure economic security is sometimes directly at odds with his drive to peacock his power over the South China Sea, over Beijing, and over Pyongyang. When such an administration is forced to choose between money and the pageantry of power, there is little predicting what the next few years might hold.

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