News analysis

Trump's public threats may harden anti-US sentiment

Arabs likely to turn against US over Palestine, and Pakistan may forge closer ties with China

President Donald Trump's Twitter attacks on Palestine and Pakistan have left both angry, but far from securing acquiescence from either, they will further cement anti-US public opinion, analysts say.

The threats to slash aid to both were not unexpected.

The harder line with Pakistan was signalled months ago - in August last year - when Mr Trump, in announcing his Afghanistan and South Asia policy, said "Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror".

And, last month, aid to Palestine was already in Mr Trump's crosshairs when he threatened to cut aid to United Nations members that voted against his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US Embassy to the city. The UN General Assembly nonetheless voted by a huge majority on Dec 22 to condemn the US move.

In the case of Pakistan,the trigger for the aid cut - and threat of further cuts - was likely the persistent activities of several radical militant groups in the country, analysts say. In a report to Congress last month, the Pentagon noted that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remained a sanctuary for various militant groups, including Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, ISIS-K (an ISIS offshoot operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

But while the messages to Pakistan have been unmistakable, the "relatively new" rhetoric has been particularly unhelpful, Dr Sameer Lalwani, senior associate and co-director for South Asia at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told The Straits Times.

"You can have subtle pressure that sends the right signals (but) when you publicise it… and (make) blanket statements like Pakistan has been of no help whatsoever, that is when you trigger a lot of reaction in Pakistan that could actually undermine the objective."

"Instead of triggering introspection and a rethink of policy, you can trigger a rally around the flag," he added.

Speaking to reporters in New York on Tuesday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned that President Trump was "willing to go to great lengths" to get Pakistan to stop harbouring terrorists who targeted US troops in Afghanistan.

And though she made a point to separate the threat to reduce assistance to Pakistan from the UN vote against the US, she also emphasised that the US had not forgotten which countries had voted against it. The UN General Assembly voted 128-9 in favour of a non-binding resolution which dismissed the US' recognition of Jerusalem as "null and void".

The threat to cut aid to Palestine is now only likely to harden anti-US sentiment on the Arab street.

A central committee member of the powerful Palestine Liberation Organisation, Ms Hanan Ashrawi, responded to Mr Trump's threat by declaring that "Palestinian rights are not for sale". "We will not be blackmailed," Ms Ashrawi said.

Mr Jeremy Ben-Ami of the liberal US Jewish pressure group J Street was baffled by the President's move. He tweeted: "In threatening to cut off future 'huge' payments to the Palestinians, the President is actually posing a direct threat to Israel's security and well-being. American aid supports training for Palestinian security forces, who have been partners of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) in preventing terror."

On the sub-continent, many now expect that the Pakistanis, stung by Mr Trump's public chastisement, will rally against the US, leading most likely to Islamabad cultivating even warmer ties with China.

"China is a winner given that Pakistan will grow even more dependent on Beijing, and will be even more likely than it already is to help the Chinese pursue their objectives in Pakistan," senior associate for South Asia Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre wrote to The Straits Times in an e-mail.

China has committed up to US$62 billion (S$82.5 billion) worth of investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of President Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" project linking Asia and Europe via a nexus of land and maritime highways.

"Pakistan is already a major ally of China's," Dr Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Centre of the Atlantic Council, told The Straits Times.

"Economically and security-wise, Pakistan's future hinges on China," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Trump's public threats may harden anti-US sentiment'. Subscribe