What will Trump's Asia policy be like?

November 15, 2016 09:03
After his surprise election victory, Donald Trump is proving to be surprisingly flexible. Photo: Reuters

The surprise election of Donald Trump has left many people uncertain what he will be like as the 45th president of the United States.

His victory speech was a pleasant contrast from his tone on the campaign trail. He actually called his opponent “Secretary Clinton” instead of “crooked Hillary” and said, “We owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.”

There are clearly two different Trumps, one from the campaign who was vindictive, petty, threatening. There is also a post-election Trump who is gentle, reasonable, magnanimous. The question is: Which Trump will actually govern?

In his first post-election interview, he was asked by the Wall Street Journal whether he thought his rhetoric had gone too far in the campaign.

The response was revealing: “No, I won.” That is to say, all the lies, insults and rabble-rousing statements were justified because they had resulted in his election.

But since his victory, “It’s different now”. Now that he is president-elect, he can afford to be moderate, to make concessions.

The Trump who met with President Barack Obama Thursday was radically different from the Trump who championed the birther movement, who insisted, falsely, that Obama was not born in the United States and hence was an illegitimate president.

Trump emerged from that meeting saying that he would seek counsel from Obama.

Subsequently, his stance on the Affordable Care Act changed. He is saying that he will keep parts of Obama’s healthcare law that he had vowed to repeal such as those portions covering people with pre-existing conditions and children living at home under the age of 26.

So Trump, after his victory, has shown himself as surprisingly flexible. The question is, will that also apply to his pronouncements on foreign policy during the campaign, such as threatening to label China a currency manipulator and slapping a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports?

During the campaign, Trump had displayed a cavalier attitude toward the proliferation of nuclear weapons, suggesting that American allies such as Japan and South Korea may have to develop those weapons to defend themselves because the US nuclear umbrella may not be there for them.

However, the Republican Party Platform unveiled in Cleveland in July, which Trump is presumably obliged to uphold, refers to “treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand” in Asia, so Trump is unlikely to lightly shed these alliances.

Since his electoral triumph, he has spoken by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, both of whom want to ensure a close relationship with the new Trump administration.

Surprisingly, as of Sunday, Trump had not received a phone call from the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who did send him a congratulatory message.

Aside from the Republican Platform, some light on Trump’s Asia policy was shed by two of his advisers, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, who wrote an article in Foreign Policy, published the day before the election.

In it the two men, commenting on Japan and South Korea, said that “It’s only fair – and long past time – for each country to step up to the full cost-sharing plate”.

That is to say, the alliances will be maintained but the allies will have to pay more. This, they indicated, would also be the Trump Administration’s attitude toward European allies.

Of course, alliances are a two-way street. They benefit the US, too, and an Asia without American allies will offer a less hospitable environment for Washington.

Take the Philippines. If Manila denies the U.S. access to its military bases, it will severely impair the ability of the American navy to project force into the South China Sea.

But then, that may suit the new Trump administration just fine.

As for declaring China a currency manipulator, the charge comes a little too late because in the last couple of years Beijing has been propping up its currency rather than keeping it low.

Moreover, imposing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods will no doubt invite retaliation on American exports, triggering a trade war.

It is highly unlikely that this will happen. But China should be aware that the new Trump Administration is going to be highly sensitive to anything that smacks of market manipulation and much more likely to respond in a confrontational manner than its predecessor.

Interestingly, Obama was swept into office eight years ago on a mantra of change. The same thing happened to Trump. Everyone wants change, it seems, but the world isn’t changing fast enough.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.