News analysis

One year of Trump: Trepidation, then relief for Asia

Snub from his TPP withdrawal still stings but overall, US leader not as bad as feared

The Straits Times' US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh, China Bureau Chief Goh Sui Noi, South Korea Correspondent Chang May Choon and Philippines Correspondent Raul Dancel discuss US President Donald Trump's first year in office.
Above: US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania arriving for the state dinner with China's President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last November. Left: Mr Trump with (from far left) Vietnam Pri
US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania arriving for the state dinner with China's President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last November. PHOTOS: REUTERS
Above: US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania arriving for the state dinner with China's President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last November. Left: Mr Trump with (from far left) Vietnam Pri
Mr Trump with (from far left) Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila last November.PHOTOS: REUTERS

Asia expected the worst, but thankfully President Donald Trump did not live up to these expectations.

Asia wants two things from any American president. One, that the United States will stay invested in Asian prosperity and champion free trade and globalisation.

And two, that the US will continue to underwrite the security of the region, as it has done since World War II.

During his election campaign, Mr Trump made heads spin by questioning both premises, threatening to upend longstanding military alliances with Japan and South Korea, slap hefty tariffs on Chinese imports and scrap multilateral free trade deals.

The cruellest blow for Asia came in the very first week of his presidency, when he signed off on orders to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which would have created the largest free trade pact in the world.

The snub still rankles, from Singapore to Sydney.

But taken as a whole, Mr Trump was not as bad as feared. His aggressive posturing against nuclear-armed North Korea, while shining a stark spotlight on China's key role in restraining the rogue state, might have - wittingly or not - brought the two Koreas to the table and lowered tensions.

His success in dismantling the barbaric Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is undeniable. Although distant from South-east Asia, the "caliphate" in the Middle East had assumed a large role as a magnet for hundreds of recruits from across the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Singapore.

But there is still a yawning gap where America's Asia policy ought to be. One year into the new administration, Mr Trump has yet to flesh out a comprehensive Asia policy, such as the Obama administration's "pivot" towards the region.

His Asia bench remains largely empty. His trinity of star advisers - Defence Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly - cut their teeth in the Middle East rather than in Asia, and largely in counter-terrorism.

His current Asia policy, therefore, needs to be gleaned from sometimes disparate strategies or short-term goals. Some brave analysts have gone so far as to glimpse a grand design, for instance, in the Indo-Pacific strategy the US President laid out in Danang, Vietnam, last November.

He promised Asia-Pacific nations the Indo-Pacific dream, in contrast to the China dream, envisioning greater cooperation between the US, Japan, Australia and India.

"It is in America's interests to have partners throughout this region that are thriving, prosperous and dependent on no one," he said in a reasonably transparent reference to China's growing influence in the region.

But in the absence of an economic undergirding, he could expect to find only a lukewarm reception among Asian nations who were courted in the same year by China's US$1 trillion (S$1.32 trillion), 68-country Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The forsaken TPP undercut his credibility.

More than a grand design, it has mattered to Asean that his administration has maintained pressure on China over its construction of islands and military facilities in disputed areas of the South China Sea. The so-called "freedom of navigation" patrols by the US Navy, to maintain its navigational rights in the South China Sea under international law, are now routine and conducted with much less fuss than before, when they raised China's hackles.

America's relationship with China continues down the path of unpredictability. A new jolt came yesterday when Mr Mattis declared that the focus of US security policy henceforth would not be terrorism, but tackling "threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia".

Mr Trump has kept Beijing - and the world - guessing as to whether he will wage a trade war against China. A full-blooded trade war would be catastrophic for the world economy and trigger a new Cold War dynamic which would unsettle the region. A lot depends on how Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has announced a new era and a more "high-spirited" foreign policy, reacts to new realities under Mr Trump.


 Mr Trump with (from far left) Vietnam Pri
US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania arriving for the state dinner with China's President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last November. PHOTO: REUTERS

There had been worries that China would be in for a hard time, given Mr Trump's hardline campaign rhetoric. He had threatened to impose heavy tariffs on Chinese imports and designate China as a currency manipulator to redress the huge trade deficit that the US had with China, triggering fears of a trade war.

But these threats have not been carried out. Instead, the two sides have set up four mechanisms for dialogue on economy, diplomacy and security, law enforcement and cyber security.

"The year basically was better than anticipated. It was relatively stable because of the leaders' relationship," noted Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. He was referring to the rapport that Mr Trump and Mr Xi established at their meeting in April last year, which the two leaders built on at their subsequent meetings.

Professor Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University, noted that the two sides had stopped cooperation - which took place under Mr Trump's predecessor Barack Obama - in areas such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation, because Mr Trump was uninterested.

Prof Jin said there might be a trade war, a small one, because Mr Trump would focus on trade issues ahead of the mid-term elections in the US this year. Prof Jia, however, thought friction in trade could worsen because the US is wary of China's development model that allows government intervention, believing that this distorts the market and is detrimental to US businesses.

On the North Korean nuclear problem, Prof Jia said that Mr Trump's expectations of the Chinese were higher than they could deliver. "He may be disappointed," he said, adding that "this could be a point of friction".

While the US and Japan do not see eye to eye all the time, Japan has much to feel confident about on US commitment to its defence.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, over the course of at least six face-to-face meetings and 18 phone calls, forged a "bromance" with Mr Trump. He has promised to buy more defence equipment, while a slew of Japanese companies, from SoftBank to Toyota, have pledged to invest and create jobs in the US.

Yet the two leaders have also disagreed on foreign policy, with Japan rejecting Mr Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Trade has also proven to be a divisive topic, as Mr Abe favours multilateral pacts, while Mr Trump has an isolationist streak. Tokyo is now taking the lead on the TPP after the US withdrawal.

When Mr Trump, during a Tokyo visit, assailed Japan's trade surplus of US$68.9 billion over the US in 2016, Mr Abe replied by stressing the larger need to "create a broad economic order in the Indo-Pacific that is fair and effective".

Yet, Mr Abe will take heart in Mr Trump's resolve over North Korea, reaffirmation that the US' security umbrella covers the Senkaku-Diaoyu islets that are also claimed by Beijing, and backing for the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Political scientist Tosh Minohara of Kobe University said: "Mr Abe is concerned that Mr Trump will lose interest in Asia, and sees securing his commitment to the Indo-Pacific as a way to keep the US engaged."

But he also said that Japan is "trying to hedge" Mr Trump's inward-looking tendencies.

Witness how Tokyo intends to financially support Beijing's BRI, over which Washington has reservations, he added.

In Seoul, too, fears were aplenty that Mr Trump would unleash fire and fury on North Korea while squeezing the South for a better trade deal and more defence burden-sharing, as were worries that South Korea's liberal President Moon Jae In would defy Washington and put their alliance at stake.

But the two leaders have managed to build trust over three summits and nine phone calls, while at the same time reaffirming their security alliance.

Despite tensions escalating over Mr Trump's verbal war with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - think "rocket man" and "dotard" - the situation has now eased as the two Koreas sit down for talks for the first time in two years, over the North's participation in the Winter Olympics next month, to be hosted by the South.

Dr James Kim, from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Mr Trump did "fairly well" managing the US-South Korea alliance in his first year. But he warned of tough challenges ahead as the two countries embark on trade and defence-sharing negotiations and figure out Pyongyang.

"We've got a confluence of three potentially destabilising factors that can negatively impact the alliance, all happening this year… It will not only depend on how President Trump conducts himself and his policies, but also what South Korean President Moon Jae In does. This is a two-way street."


On the plus side, Mr Trump did go to key economic and political summits of the region's 10-member Asean grouping in Manila last November. He even pulled a last-minute surprise to attend the East Asia Summit. Though his five-nation tour of Asia was more pageantry than policy-setting, expectations were so low that Mr Trump's presence alone was considered a success.

There was the expected "love fest" between him and the Philippines' equally brash leader Rodrigo Duterte, mending ties ruffled under Mr Obama.

The trade-off was that Mr Trump opted not to raise, as a human rights issue, the subject of the thousands killed in Mr Duterte's brutal crackdown on the narcotics trade.

The other issue of concern in many South-east Asian nations has been Mr Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric, including the travel ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries entering the US, now mired in courts, and his more recent move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

 Mr Trump with (from far left) Vietnam Pri
Mr Trump with (from far left) Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit in Manila last November. PHOTOS: REUTERS

Thousands of people in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, have taken to the streets in protest over his decision on Jerusalem.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak went from being good friends with Mr Trump to denouncing him for the Jerusalem decision-all in the span of three months.

Datuk Seri Najib, who visited the White House in September and witnessed national carrier Malaysia Airlines signing a US$1.8 billion Boeing deal, had then lauded Malaysia's close ties with the US.

But fast forward to December, as Mr Najib defended the rights of Palestinians, saying at a rally: "Yes, Donald Trump is my good friend. But based on principles, I will never pawn the purity of Islam".

Malaysians have formed a more negative view of the US since Mr Trump came to power, according to the Centre for American Progress, which says fewer Malaysians were seeking to enrol in US universities because of perceptions that Muslims were not welcome there.

Despite this, some analysts believe that ties between Malaysia and the US are likely to remain unaffected by Mr Trump's leadership. "Bilateral ties have always tended to be robust, irrespective of who's in charge in Putrajaya or Washington," said Mr Shahriman Lockman, senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.

"There has always been a divergence between popular and elite sentiments towards the US… Perhaps because of the rise of other major powers, the US remains indispensable as a security and economic partner for Malaysia," he added.

In Indonesia, Mr Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy has left the country feeling neglected, said strategic studies researcher Bradley Wood. "Indonesia's size, geographic location and its de facto leadership status of Asean should make Indonesia a heavyweight consideration for the Trump administration as part of its approach to the Indo-Pacific," he said. "However, Indonesia has remained largely absent."

Another wrinkle is Indonesia's massive trade surplus with the US, which stood at US$13 billion in 2016. It is ranked 15th on Mr Trump's list of 16 countries that Washington has said could be investigated for trade abuses.

But observers also note that as the US is a major investor in Indonesia and Jakarta is a key player in counter-terrorism efforts, economic and security cooperation is expected to stay stable.

In Thailand, relations have seen a boost under Mr Trump. Ties, which hit a nadir after the military coup in 2014, received a fillip when Mr Trump received Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in the White House in October last year.

The Cobra Gold exercise, an annual multilateral military exercise co-hosted by Thailand and the US, continued uninterrupted and will take place again next month.

Thammasat University assistant professor Jittipat Poonkham argued that the US' "main tactical focus is the military relations with the Thai military junta".

"The Trump administration refocused the military cooperation as a way to have a better say in other issues, including trade, intelligence and anti-terrorism," he said. He also noted that Mr Trump's actions in Asia so far have been "reactionary, not visionary".

"There is no so-called Trump's grand strategy in Asia - neither a pivot to Asia nor a rebalancing strategy. One of the most defining aspects of Trump's policy towards Thailand, and perhaps the Asia-Pacific, is an inevitable reaction to the so-called rise of China."

But the US administration, he pointed out, remained engaged in Asia. "Trump's 'pivot-to-Asia' policy by default is aimed at managing or, (more) accurately, muddling through, the rising Chinese military power. In short, the US under Trump does not disengage from the world as many claimed, but rather engages with it in his own way."

In Vietnam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was quick off the mark in visiting the White House soon after Mr Trump was elected president. While Vietnam's economic prospects were affected by the US withdrawal from the TPP, analysts say key strategic elements of the US-Vietnam relationship were retained, like maritime assistance which bolstered its capability to defend its interests in the South China Sea.

"Bilateral ties between the US and Vietnam enjoyed continuity and acquired stronger momentum," said ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Le Hong Hiep. "This will continue during his presidency."

Given American concern about China's growing might, there was a convergence of interest between the US and Vietnam, said Dr Hiep.

"Some analysts say he may 'sacrifice' some interests to get Chinese cooperation in the North Korean issue, but that's a misperception," he added.

"The US wants to protect the freedom of navigation and law and order in the South China Sea. There is no trade-off here."

In Myanmar, ties with the US are decidedly less warm than under Mr Obama, who visited then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon. The atmosphere was chillier when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Naypyitaw last November amid local disenchantment with the Western condemnation of the treatment of Rohingya Muslims.

Although Mr Tillerson was restrained during the visit, he later described the situation as "ethnic cleansing".

Mr Nay Phone Latt, a Yangon region Member of Parliament from the ruling National League for Democracy party, said: "Our relationship is not so good like in the past. But I'm not so sure it's because of the (new US) President. It could just be the political situation in the country."

Overall, for trade-dependent South-east Asia, Mr Trump's Achilles' heel has been his zero enthusiasm for multilateral economic diplomacy. After he abruptly quit the TPP negotiations, the region's booming economies have gravitated towards a rival pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

"As a result, China has ended up filling the leadership vacuum, though not decisively yet," said De La Salle University political analyst Richard Heydarian.


In South Asia, India has continued to warm to the US over the past year, although ties between US and Pakistan have cooled, even plunging to a new low.

Mr Trump, in the first tweet of the year, said the US has given Pakistan more than US$33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, but has received in return "nothing but lies and deceit" and Pakistan is still "offering safe haven to the terrorists".

The US has announced it is stopping at least US$900 million in security aid to Pakistan.

"It has been a real challenge for Pakistan to deal with the new President whose foreign policy experience is next to nil," said Mr Raza Rumi, consulting editor at the Daily Times, an English newspaper in Pakistan, and currently teaching at Cornell University.

"Pakistan had been preparing for a fallout.... but Trump has trumped everyone in terms of hard talk."

Still, Islamabad remains a key player in Afghanistan, so Mr Trump will not be able to disengage from Pakistan, which has also deepened ties with China.

Over in India, there is satisfaction with the way the Trump administration has put India at the centre of the Indo-Pacific policy .

"I think Trump's approach to India has been fairly positive. Important allies are not happy with Trump but India is satisfied," said Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

In spite of concerns like the tightening visa rules for Indian software workers, she noted that both countries are looking "at the big picture" against the backdrop of the growth of China.

In sum, Asia remains watchful, aware that Mr Trump's unpredictability could mean that there may never be an Asia policy during his term, just realpolitik and not-so-pretty phrases.

• With reporting from ST's China bureau chief Goh Sui Noi in Beijing, Japan correspondent Walter Sim in Tokyo, South Korea correspondent Chang May Choon in Seoul, Philippines correspondent Raul Dancel in Manila, Indonesia bureau chief Francis Chan in Jakarta, Malaysia correspondent Trinna Leong in Kuala Lumpur, regional correspondent Tan Hui Yee in Bangkok and India bureau chief Nirmala Ganapathy in New Delhi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'One year of Trump: Trepidation, then relief for Asia'. Subscribe