Trump’s New Asia Policy

Spearhead Opinion – 19.12.2016

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

President-elect Donald Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen on December 2 overturning more than four decades of diplomatic tradition in the US. Usually congratulatory phone calls exchanged between foreign leaders do not attract much attention. As is often the case with the President-elect, this call was different. The ‘Taiwan question’ is popularly cited as the most sensitive of Beijing’s core interests. A leftover of the Chinese civil war, the Taiwan question is deemed a purely private affair for China and treated as such. Since President Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter the US has steered clear of any direct contact with the leaders of Taiwan. Trump caught China completely off guard when he lunged into one of the most high-priority concerns for the Chinese government: the one China policy. The Tsai-Trump call was a sharp breach in protocol. Response to the call was immediate and as expected, hysterical. With a little more than a month left to go before the inauguration day, no less than three of Trump’s conversations with Asian leaders – from Taiwan, Pakistan, and the Philippines – have managed to spark anxiety across countries about the likelihood of dramatic U.S. foreign policy changes in the foreseeable future.

While the Trump-Tsai call prompted questions about what could possibly be gained from risking antagonizing China, it also came as a warning against the great uncertainty that lies ahead. Some uncertainty is normal during any transfer of power, but Trump’s inexperience in foreign affairs and the absence of a coherent vision among his advisors on Asia means that uncertainty around Trump’s policies in Asia-Pacific is more than what the US is used to dealing with. President-elect Trump has a history of breaking presidential protocol. As the Trump administration prepares to take office, the world must prepare itself for more eccentricity.

It is clear that Trump intends to shift US policy; however his foreign policy contours are still to be worked out. It would be wise to recall that in Trump’s case campaign rhetoric can be very different from policies implemented in governance. It is also important to consider that Trump might not have any plans for policy at all and there is a good chance the phone call was a blunder by a team with limited experience of international affairs.

When the news of the phone call first broke out Trump claimed that the call was spontaneous- which is both strange and highly unlikely. Soon after, Trump sent out a series of tweets followed with an interview on Fox in which he stated that the survival of the one China policy will depend on what Beijing can do for the US in return.

Trump’s vision of a kind of ‘transactional diplomacy’ is something that has yet to be adequately explained. He did his campaigning in part by opposing trade agreements. Emphasis laid on deal-making as a way of conducting foreign policy means securing strategic interests fall much later in the list of Trump administration’s priorities. Discarding an important part of President Obama’s legacy: the Asia Pivot, was only the next step. Obama laid great emphasis on the Asia Pivot and the need to shift attention from Europe and the Middle East, and reorient it towards Asia.

However, under Trump America is entering a new era: the Trump-sanctioned rules of engagement will lead to the collapse of America’s previously forged alliances and will begin a period of urgent deal-making with countries such as China, Pakistan and even Taiwan. America’s withdrawal and the end of the Asia Pivot will be felt hardest in East and South East Asia where conflicts involving China and its neighbors are likely to worsen.

The power vacuum left with the end of the Asia Pivot will likely see all stakeholders scrambling to adapt to the new security order. Under PM Modi, India has already signaled intent to step up and assert itself as a regional power by signing the first of its kind defence treaties with Vietnam, forging a burgeoning alliance with Japan and increasing cooperation with the ASEAN countries. India has gained from the stability and security provided by the presence of American troops in Afghanistan. As President Obama began to call back troops, there was an increase in attacks on India’s diplomatic missions in Afghanistan’s Kabul and Herat area. Amid the power vacuum created by US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, India also had to deal with a more assertive Pakistan. Indo-Pak relations are under considerable strain with the recent increase in cross-border firing. Any attempts by India at filling Trump’s power vacuum will mean stretching Modi’s government beyond its capacity- considering the economy-related challenges India is already faced with at home. A more assertive China can however be expected to attend to this vacuum.

In any case, America’s withdrawal from Asia Pacific is sure to alter the diplomatic landscape. So what does the future US policy for the region look like? It will presumably be governed by individual transactions, collecting bargaining chips and deal-making. US involvement is likely to be minimal unless it chimes with Trump’s slogan: “Make America great again”. This also means the US will no longer feel responsible for accelerating the regional peace process or furthering regional integration. It will be interesting to see how this foreign policy shift will materialize when Trump takes the Oval office. Trump is not likely to adhere to traditional diplomatic practice. All stakeholders including China, Pakistan and India must better prepare to accommodate this shift in the orientation of American foreign policy if they are to negotiate with the global hegemon.