Trade wars, nuclear proliferation, mass expulsions from America – those are among the risks Asians face from the next occupant of the White House, writes Raymond Whitaker
On November 9 the world woke up to a new reality. Markets plunged and governments went into urgent session as they discovered that instead of the US presidential election result they had hoped for and assumed – a victory for familiarity and continuity in the shape of Hillary Clinton – the most powerful nation on earth had instead chosen Donald J Trump, a six-times-bankrupted, thrice-married property mogul and reality television star who had never previously been elected to anything in his life.
While none could have failed to notice Trump’s extravagant claims and promises during the drawn-out campaign that characterises US presidential elections, few anticipated that they would ever have to take him seriously. That changed the day after Americans voted, setting in motion the most unpredictable transition period in the country’s history.
Both at home and abroad, the question universally being asked is: will the President-elect do what he says? Asia in particular has reason to fear the answer.
If Trump were to follow his rhetoric to the letter, he would start a trade war with China and other low-cost Asian exporters, crack down on immigration from South Asia, drive Pakistan further into China’s embrace, press Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons while scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran – which would probably doom the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – and for good measure ditch the Paris climate change treaty, which has only just gone into effect.
Given such prospects, it was no surprise that Japan’s Prime Minister, Shintaro Abe, hastened to be the first foreign leader to meet the President-elect at Trump Tower in New York. He gave little away afterwards, other than to say the discussion had been ‘very candid’. But within days Trump had announced that on his first day in office, he would scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty, a pet project of President Barack Obama which his successor has denounced as exporting US jobs. Despite excluding China, TPP involved 12 Pacific Rim countries and 40 per cent of world trade, but without the US it is a dead letter.
Abe, whose other main concern would have been the strategic partnership between the US and Japan, said that he thought he could build a personal relationship with Trump. This is likely to be an important consideration with a President who sees himself as a ‘deal-maker’, more likely to prefer negotiating face-to-face with those he views as fellow ‘strong’ leaders than pondering the nuances of policy.
But even if it is inconceivable that Japan, the only country to suffer nuclear attack, would deploy such weapons itself, both the Japanese and South Koreans are likely to find themselves having to pay more for their defence under President Trump, who has accused the two countries of ‘free-riding’ on US commitments to protect them from Chinese expansionism and North Korean adventurism. The new occupant of the White House has promised to resist Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, but whether a businessman who appears to view most issues in money terms is prepared to invest heavily in US naval power remains to be seen.
For Trump, the money issue par excellence is exports from China, which he has accused of ‘raping’ the US. During the campaign he threatened a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese products, and promised to ‘bring jobs back’ from China, saying: ‘I’m going to get Apple to start making their computers and their iPhones on our land, not in China.’ Apple pointed out that it has created two million jobs in the US, while others have described myriad difficulties with Trump’s approach. iPhones, for example, are assembled in China from components from the US as well as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And how would Americans react to hefty increases in the price of their consumer electronics?
All the same, China has reacted warily to the Trump victory. ‘A trade war is inconceivable,’ said a Chinese analyst, trying to reassure himself and fellow citizens. ‘Trump is a smart person. He said this to get the votes. Once he’s in power, he will continue to be smart and won’t want to hurt his chances to be re-elected.’ For more than two decades, Beijing sources added, presidential candidates have threatened action against Chinese exports, only to go quiet once in office. But of all Trump’s campaign pledges, this is the one his supporters will not forget. If he fails to ‘bring back’ jobs, they are unlikely to forgive him.
Many fear that despite the President-elect’s bluster, his policies will actually result in China extending its influence across Asia. Less than two weeks after the US election, the 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation organisation were meeting in Peru, with America’s partners in TPP seeking to salvage what they could in the way of free trade. While Obama was bidding his fellow leaders farewell, China’s President Xi Jinping was seeking new trading arrangements, this time with the US left out.
On the strategic front, American allies such as South Korea and Japan may conclude that with uncertain support from Washington, they cannot afford to antagonise Beijing. And when it comes to human rights, China need not expect criticism from a President who has advocated torture. Such an attitude will also find favour with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has encouraged his police to shoot to kill in his war against drugs. But even though Duterte sees Trump as a fellow ‘strongman’, he has insisted he will continue to realign his country’s policies away from the US, which he has described as an untrustworthy ally, and towards China and Russia.
All this might appear to present an opportunity for India to consolidate the friendship with Washington that flourished under Obama, and reinforce its status as a counterweight to China. Trump himself took time, late in his campaign, to attend a rally organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition, at which he praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi as ‘a great man’, declaring: ‘I am a big fan of Hindu and I am a big fan of India… Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House, that I can guarantee.’
India, he added, had been a ‘great friend… in our fight against radical Islamic terror’.
Given that Trump has also in the past referred to Pakistan as ‘not friends of ours’, and – in contrast to his enthusiasm for nuclear proliferation in East Asia – has threatened to cut aid unless Islamabad gives up its nuclear weapons, New Delhi might be tempted to believe that it holds all the cards in South Asia’s endless rivalry. But that would be premature: not only is Trump expected to be considerably less preoccupied with Afghanistan than Obama, most analysts expect that this administration, like its predecessors, will conclude that it cannot cut Pakistan completely adrift.
‘Well, I would love to see Pakistan and India get along, because that’s a very, very hot tinderbox,’ the President-to-be told the Hindustan Times recently.
Washington’s relationship with Pakistan, however, will remain what one analyst called ‘transactional and tactical’, summed up by Raza Rumi, a scholar at Ithaca College and Cornell University, as follows: ‘It is like you give me million dollars, I give you location of militants and you drone them. You give me F16s, I will deliver you “X”. A kind of a supermarket security grocery shopping.’
Looking westwards from New Delhi, there are other causes for concern. Since fracking made the US less energy dependent on the Middle East, Washington has kept Saudi Arabia and other sources of finance for Islamist terrorism at arm’s length. The coolness towards the Saudis that developed under Obama is likely to continue under his successor. Not only does Trump consider Riyadh another ‘free rider’ which should pay for its own defence, he is appointing senior defence and security officials who appear to consider all Muslims potential terrorists. They also give every sign of spoiling for confrontation with Iran.
Since India is a major importer of crude oil from both Saudi Arabia and Iran, it will not relish the disruption that may be in prospect. Further strategic interests are at stake: sanctions against Iran could also threaten the joint project between Tehran and New Delhi to develop the Gulf port of Chabahar, which is seen not only as giving Afghanistan a route to the sea, but as a counter to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through to the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, which gives India uncomfortable feelings of encirclement.
Individual Indians may suffer collateral damage from other planks of the Trump campaign. His pledge to expel illegal immigrants is aimed mainly at Mexicans and other Latin Americans, but is bad news for the estimated half a million Indians in the US illegally. And his threats to slap tariffs on imports are unlikely to apply to China alone in Asia, especially if companies simply seek to switch production to other low-cost countries, such as Vietnam.
But guessing what this thin-skinned, volatile future occupant of the White House will say or do next is likely to have policymakers around the world burying their heads in their hands. Take, for example, the issue of the entry of skilled Indians to the US.
At one moment during the campaign Trump was saying: ‘We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.’ The next he was promising to end the use of the H1-B visa – which allows in highly skilled workers, and is given to more Indians than any other nationality – as a ‘cheap labour programme’, and to ‘hire American workers first for every visa and immigration programme’.
So does Trump mean what he says? The trouble is that if you delve back far enough into the statements and Twitter feeds of a man who has courted publicity for most of his 70 years, you can find him taking opposing positions on almost every question. After President Obama’s ‘pivot towards Asia’, the region could well find that President Trump is simply not interested. But Asia, along with the rest of the world, can only guess what the next four years are going to be like.