'Independent America' is top risk this year

President-elect Donald Trump has declared a new form of US independence, one that's likely to transform US foreign policy. Each January, Eurasia Group publishes its list of top global political risks for the coming year. For 2017, there are many reasons why "Independent America" is our choice for risk No. 1. In particular, this will sharply raise tensions in Asia.

Mr Trump campaigned on a pledge to "make America great again" but also on promises to build an "America first" approach to the world. He insists that the world's sole superpower will now spend its resources only in pursuit of core US interests - without regard for the consequences for everyone else. On security, trade, and climate policy, says Mr Trump, all treaties and alliances are up for review. This is not isolationism. Mr Trump will use US power much less cautiously than Mr Barack Obama has. Instead, this is an extreme unilateralism grounded in Mr Trump's conviction that other governments are invoking traditionalities and common values to take advantage of US taxpayers.

In short, the world's most powerful nation is about to become much more unpredictable. In Europe, Mr Trump's conditional support for Nato, his tilt towards Mr Putin's Russia and his political affinity with anti-EU populists will leave the transatlantic alliance weaker than at any moment since the 1930s. In the Middle East, the US energy revolution has steadily reduced US interest in the region's rivalries, leaving competing powers - inside and outside government - to fight for dominance.

Mr Trump's scepticism of international institutions like the United Nations and World Bank will undermine the work they do in managing conflict, in housing, feeding and protecting refugees, and in investing in developing countries.

But the risk is also important in Asia, where there is growing risk of conflict between the United States and a rising China. President Xi Jinping will use Mr Trump's declaration of American independence to advance China's security interests across Asia and its economic interests everywhere. In recent speeches, he has vowed that China, not trade-sceptical America, will lead the further advance of globalisation. His appearance later this month at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, the first by a Chinese president, and his unprecedented support for the incoming UN Secretary-General underscore this message. China is no longer a "growing teenager" that's not yet ready for leadership. The emerging power has fully emerged.

 

Mr Trump will notice. He will see that traditional allies in South-east Asia, doubtful of US staying power, are shifting their allegiance towards Beijing. He will note that China is becoming more assertive at international meetings. He will recognise that Mr Xi, who is preparing for a crucial political transition later this year, is pushing back hard on Mr Trump's criticism of China's actions in the South China Sea and its trade and currency policies. Mr Xi will denounce US behaviour that he believes is provocative.

If Mr Trump warms relations with Taiwan to pressure Beijing, if Mr Xi feels that democracy activists in Hong Kong are embarrassing his government or if China's relations deteriorate with US ally Japan, US-Chinese relations will be sorely tested. The South China Sea is an obvious zone of competition. Beijing will slowly increase military pressure on others in the region while continuing to build strong commercial relations with each of them. Both carrots and sticks are likely to be effective, and criticism from Mr Trump will meet immediate and forceful pushback. China's neighbours, including Japan and South Korea, will find themselves increasingly caught between posturing powers.

North Korea also deserves special attention this year. It has advanced substantially its nuclear and missile programmes and looks set to expand them further. It's close to mastering warhead miniaturisation technology and has made steady progress towards an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the west coast of the US. Mr Trump will continue to insist that China help eliminate North Korea's weapons, not simply contain the risks they pose. If Mr Trump sharply ratchets up pressure on Pyongyang and pushes past Chinese objections to impose tougher sanctions, particularly those that hurt Chinese banks at an especially bad time for Mr Xi to appear weak, we could see a serious crisis in US-Chinese relations.

Under presidents Bush and Obama, Beijing and Washington greatly improved communications. But in a year when the US and Chinese presidents both have something to prove, that progress will be threatened as never before.

•Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices For America's Role In The World. Independent America is one of 10 Top Risks identified by Eurasia Group for 2017.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline ''Independent America' is top risk this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe