After Trump victory, uncertainty in Asia. If America retreats, will it be China to the fore?

Republican contender Donald Trump's shock victory in the American presidential election will unnerve Asians who believe that their future lies with the United States in the long term. What lurks ahead are at least four years of uncertainty and possible brinkmanship in American-Asian relations.

Asian fears of the Trump ascendancy are not without basis. He is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a gold-standard trade agreement seven of whose 12 members are from the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. America's refusal to ratify the deal would effectively sound its death-knell.

The TPP had its strategic counterpart in the American turn to the Asia-Pacific known as the pivot. Democratic contender Hillary Clinton's chief legacy to this region is the pivot, which she and her team crafted when she was Secretary of State.

Unlike the TPP, the pivot is not based on a single document which can be torn up at Washington's will. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to continue in its current form and would be another casualty of the stunning upset pulled off by Mr Trump.

Together, the TPP and the pivot constituted the American answer to the economic and military rise of an assertive China. The TPP, which covers roughly a third of global trade, seeks to lower tariffs and institute standards on a range of issuers from labour and environmental regulations to the protection of intellectual property. One of its unspoken objectives was to act as a counterweight to China's expansion as a world manufacturing and economic power.

As for the pivot, its importance is reiterated by the distinguished American strategist Kurt M. Campbell. The former Assistant Secretary of State argues in his book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, published this year, that the US is involved in a long-term national project to redirect its foreign policy to the East.

The author argues that the US is doing so to help revitalise its economy by engaging a dynamic region which will write a substantial share of the 21st century's history. The book is premised on the sound notion that America needs Asia as Asia needs America.

This buoyant optimism runs contrary to Mr Trump's worldview. Should his policies lead to the strategic abandonment of Asia, they would leave American allies such as Japan free to develop nuclear weapons while seeking to push back China economically with punitive trade tariffs.

The economic containment of China and the military emboldening of Japan are a recipe for strategic anarchy. Should America move towards a parochial and even isolationist foreign policy, both sides of the Pacific would have to pay dearly.

It is China that would win from all this.

Although the spectre of substantial tariffs and the re-arming of Japan are threats to Beijing, it would benefit in other ways. The abrogation of the TPP would expand economic space for countervailing institutions such as the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while the disappearance of the pivot would create more diplomatic space for Beijing in its disputes with various Asian countries in the troubled South China Sea waters.

 

CHINA TO THE FORE?

Thus, the new American President will have to deal with a clearly assertive China, which has been energised by recent political successes. The international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea in July, unfavourable to Beijing, has come and gone. Instead of strengthening Filipino resolve to stand up to China, domestic emotions roused by the ruling in the Philippines have given way to a warming of relations between Manila and Beijing, under new president Rodrigo Duterte. Lucrative trade deals and Chinese lack of opposition to Philippine Duterte's lethal war on drugs and crime are reasons for the new friendship.

The same warming of ties is apparent between Malaysia and China. The Malaysian leadership has responded happily to China's economic overtures during difficult political times at home.

Other countries, too, in Asean - notably Cambodia - see China as a viable fall-back should America disengage from the Asia-Pacific. Mr Trump's isolationist impulses, if translated into policy, will help create an Asian political culture that views China as a reliable leader whose political cycles are not subjected to the vagaries of American democratic policies.

However, it remains to be seen just how far Mr Trump will go and how quickly he will move. It is possible that he will mellow in office, listening to experts who calculate the actual costs of extreme policies. For example, imposing tariffs of 45 per cent on Chinese exports would lead to a trade war in which the United States, too, would lose.

At the moment, however, it appears that Asia, like other parts of the world, is under assault from curveball events, embodiments of the unexpected whose appearance rewrites the rules of the game so thoroughly as to make change look normal.

Brexit was such an event; the election of soon-to-be President Trump is another.


The writer heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.