Asian Editors Circle

South Korea must prepare to tackle the Trump Order

It should be ready to protect its interests and people amid fast-changing global scene

It's official: A new world order, aka the Trump Order, has been set in motion.

Most of us should have been ready for it since the man had been more than clear about backtracking on the United States' global trade policies. And now, in one flamboyant gesture, he has overturned his predecessor Barack Obama's decision to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As one of the key members, Japan is up in arms. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed he would continue to try and persuade President Donald Trump.

At the same time, Tokyo appears to be quite ready to face the new threat. Japan is a country that downplays the number of naval destroyers it has in order to keep its "frenemies" in check and to assure them it still has a long way to go in terms of military defence. In reality, Tokyo is armed with seemingly worn-down submarines that can actually be made battle-ready at a moment's notice.

The Abe administration has been ready to face off with Mr Trump for a while now, and internal government sources say the foundations have already been laid. Prime Minister Abe has already put in motion the necessary structural reforms to wean Japan off the US or make Japanese firms more competitive in the face of high tariffs. He is also preparing to enlist the support of high-profile companies such as Softbank, which has been pledging more investments in the US.

Further, Japan is looking to cut loose from China, which has made it clear it won't play into US hands.

In contrast to Japan and China, South Korea has a smaller say.

South Koreans in Seoul rallying on Thursday against a meeting between US Defence Secretary James Mattis and South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn. But the country's alliance with the US goes far beyond military issues and the significance should not be downplayed. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

But that does not mean it has less on the line. The country stands as the world's 11th-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product, but it also depends on exports for more than two-thirds of it.

So any policy decisions by its chief trade partners are bound to have a profound impact; even more so now that its internal economic affairs are in a mess due to the ongoing impeachment proceedings against its President. South Korea truly cannot afford to have its global partnerships jeopardised.

During his presidential campaign, Mr Trump had already called the US-Korea free trade agreement a failed partnership that has robbed the US of 100,000 jobs. The Seoul government should have long been brainstorming a strategy to keep the deal on track and must readily communicate its plans to the public before the concerns mushroom into something bigger.

The alliance with the US goes far beyond military issues and the significance should not be downplayed or tainted in any way if South Korea is to continue pursuing its national interests.

The strategy should be laid out in such a way so as to prevent South Koreans from harbouring unnecessary ill sentiments towards the US, and vice versa. For this, both governments will have to cooperate seamlessly.

Mr Trump must realise the contribution that South Koreans and the South Korean economy are making in the US - that while it may not be comparable in size with other nations such as Japan and China, there is no going around the fact that in the end, cliched as it may sound, it is indeed a global economy.

South Korean firms should take a cue from Softbank and find ways to offer more support to the South Korean economy as it faces the aftershocks of Mr Trump's latest policy move.

As for the US, it must remember that South Korean companies like Hyundai, Samsung and LG have been seeking cheaper entry into the US for years via countries like Mexico and Vietnam. The change of a regime must not pull the plug on these efforts, for the sake of global partnership. And needless to say, the products and services taken into the US also help create livelihoods there.

All of this should not be forgotten or put on the back-burner. As already witnessed in the Lehman Brothers meltdown, the intricate web of global trade and finance ensures that the demise of a single company can affect so many more.

But, in a weird and twisted way, I do envy the American people. Sure, there could have been someone better than Mr Trump, whom psychologists have branded narcissistic and delusional.

But for many Americans, he is doing what they have only dreamed of doing and saying. To say out loud that they think that the US is the best, that they are scared of anyone appearing to infringe upon its beliefs and interests, even at the expense of other nations and peoples. To say that the US won't play the peace-brokering leader who is constantly mindful of others, including rivals. To say the US will start acting for its benefit only, regardless of how short-sighted this may be.

To have a president, as strange as he may be, who for now appears so committed in his campaign, does draw an odd contrast with South Korea's embattled President Park Geun Hye, who now seems anxious only to cover her own tail.

In some ways, they are similar in that they seem to prioritise themselves. But, at least for now, Mr Trump is delivering to many Americans the promise they need, as twisted or unorthodox as his methods may be.

In a similar fashion, but based on a strategic and acceptable approach, South Korea should be ready to protect its interests and people amid the fast-changing global order. And all other players in the economy must be ready to help.

  • This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and senior writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'South Korea must prepare to tackle the Trump Order'. Print Edition | Subscribe