'If US turns inward, China's clout will rise': Analysts' take on Donald Trump's inauguration speech

Isolationist Washington will allow Beijing to boost strategic influence in Asia, say experts

A cyclist riding past advertisements for a magazine showing various cover stories, including ones featuring Donald Trump, at a newsstand in Shanghai.
A cyclist riding past advertisements for a magazine showing various cover stories, including ones featuring Donald Trump, at a newsstand in Shanghai. PHOTO: AFP

A protectionist United States that is less engaged in East Asia could lead to the growth of Chinese influence in the region, said analysts in response to US President Donald Trump's inaugural speech.

Mr Trump, in his speech on Friday, made it clear he would pursue a protectionist and isolationist "America first" policy, including on trade, in a bid to bring jobs back to the US.

The White House, in a statement, said the US will withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, one of the largest in the region that brings together 12 nations.

Signalling a renewed focus on counter-terrorism, Mr Trump said the US would "reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism".

And while Mr Trump did not mention China by name, Beijing is likely to expect pressure from the US in the areas of trade and geopolitics.

"Trade friction between a Trump-led US and China is highly probable", given that Mr Trump meant to overturn current US trade and economic policies to revitalise the US economy, said the state-run Global Times in an editorial. It added that China could also face pressure from the US in geopolitics.

A US that is protectionist and distracted by security issues in other parts of the world will "create some impression in the minds of local elites in East Asia that the US is not as reliable as it used to be", said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"You can then see the growth of Chinese influence. Some countries will decide to be engaged with China, and you can see the very gradual transformation of regional security alignments slightly in favour of China," he added.

The US' withdrawal from the TPP - and its likely trade disputes with China and other countries in the region - means it is unlikely to take the leading role in shaping the economic integration of the region, thus giving China more scope to do so.

"In the coming years, China may have the opportunity to further expand its economic influence in the region," said Prof Li.

This could, in turn, boost Beijing's strategic influence. "In today's Asia, economics, strategic influence and security relationships are inseparable. If the economic future of regional countries rests more and more with China, it will help increase China's strategic clout in the region," he said.

He added that this has already been seen in the case of the South China Sea. "In the past years, China was able to prevent a unified Asean because of the importance of China's economic ties with some Asean member states."

However, Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said he does not think there will be a lot of room for China to manoeuvre.

This is because East Asia is too important economically for the US to ignore. "The US will strengthen its military presence in the region and use bilateral negotiations to win more concessions," he said.

But this unilateral approach could be harmful to the US because countries in the region would not agree with it. Whether China can capitalise on this depends on what it does, but the US remains important to these countries, he added.

To counter China's growing influence, Kobe University professor Tosh Minohara said a "coalition of concerned nations" in the region could hold dialogues, including on security issues. This coalition could include Japan, India, Vietnam, Australia and Singapore.

Indeed, the US under Mr Trump would want its security ally Japan to do more operationally, including taking part in freedom of navigation operations that the US has been conducting in the South China Sea, to challenge what it sees as China's excessive claims there, he added.

If the US were to retreat from the region, Japan would then have to play a bigger leadership role.

"If Japan does nothing, that by default means that this area is now part of the Chinese sphere of influence," he said.

He added that although the TPP in its present form is dead, Japan should advocate that the other nations negotiate a "TPP 2.0" without the US but including India.

"We will see a more unstable and uncertain East Asia and, perhaps, also an unhappy one... It's going to be a roller-coaster ride and we will have to brace ourselves for the worst."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline ''If US turns inward, China's clout will rise''. Subscribe