While the election of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 U.S. election has thrown the world into a tizzy, it is also true that here in Asia, we’ve had our share of strongmen. So, although it’s definitely not business as usual, you might say a Trump presidency is nothing we ain’t seen before.
Still, the Asian region is in a particularly vulnerable moment. It is facing a variety of challenges, including an expansionist China, the North Korean nuclear threat, terrorism and environmental disasters wrought by climate change.
A more isolationist US at this precarious time does not bode well.
In terms of regional security alone, the engagement of the US in the region thus far has been invaluable.
Ever since the end of World War II, American presence has always provided a much-needed counterbalance to unbridled and unchecked aggressions in the region.
It would not be in the interest of Asian nations, nor the US and the global community as a whole, to have an unstable Asia. This is a very real risk should the US disengage and leave the negotiation table on issues of security.
To give just one example, should the US withdraw its troops from South Korea and Japan, it would leave the region more vulnerable to North Korea, potentially forcing the neighboring countries to develop their nuclear capability in order to bolster their own security. China would be emboldened to further expand its ambitions and military power.
It is not so much that Asian nations need the US to tell them what to do, but its clout, power, and military capability alone mean that the US can be a moderating influence in any negotiation. There is no viable replacement for the role of the US at this point in time.
In the area of trade, should Trump follow through on his campaign promises, we are likely to see a withdrawal from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade agreement.
Unfortunately a trade disengagement from Asia will leave a vacuum. Japanese investment may be able to fill it, but in the meantime, many Asian governments have had to turn to China for large infrastructure investments on less-than-attractive terms, including high interest rates and strict repayment schedules.
It’s desirable then, that the US remain an active participant in regional trade, to increase competitiveness in the region.
In terms of the liberal world order, the role of the US since the Cold War in establishing international norms of peace and security, be it through the work of multilateral institutions, bilateral diplomacy, NGOs, or the private sector, cannot be underestimated.
There are many things the US does while projecting soft power that help foster global peace and stability. These include emergency relief, food security, capacity building of governmental institutions, cultivating democratic values through the works of organizations such as the Peace Corps, supporting civil society organizations, and assisting in technological innovation.
Trump’s presidency could augur a gradual winding down of US soft power diplomacy in Asia, in which case we are likely to see a return to a more realist global world order, where military strength is emphasized and relied upon to maintain a balance.
Without the US around to keep promoting and advocating for the values of human rights and civil liberties (such as the freedom of speech) it is likely that the growing tribalism in many parts of Asia will go unchecked and unchallenged.
As the liberal world order and respect for international norms and rules disintegrate, we could potentially see increased tensions and possible confrontations on multiple fronts. It would be the ‘law of the jungle’ for a while, until new norms are recalibrated and established.
Nonetheless, it’s arguable that given the unprecedented ugliness of the American election and the increasing heavy-handedness of American law enforcement in the U.S. (e.g., the Black Lives Matter movement, widespread NSA spying etc.), we have already witnessed a waning of American moral authority.
The recommendation is for the US not to completely roll back soft power diplomacy but to temper its tendency to lecture Asian nations about their internal affairs, especially in the areas of human rights and other civil liberties.
On a slightly more encouraging note, a Trump administration definitely means it will NOT be ‘more of the same’ where US policy towards Asia is concerned.
The Obama’s administration’s “Pivot to Asia” did not really deliver on its promise of more meaningful engagement. So, in a manner of speaking, we have an opportunity for a different kind of engagement in light of it being a completely clean slate.
There is also the wild card effect where, because Donald Trump is so unpredictable and no one really knows what he believes in, other nations may moderate their own behaviour just because “we don’t know what he would be willing to do or how far he would go.”