China Hands editors NICHOLAS WU and YIFU DONG evaluate the potential effects of President Donald Trump’s policies in East Asia.
As the dust settles after the 2016 US presidential election, this much is certain – Foggy Bottom will not be spared seismic changes. Donald Trump has neither legislative nor governing background, but since the beginning of the campaign, he has proposed a radically different vision of America’s place in the world. Beijing seems to welcome the prospect of a Trump presidency. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, this election meant that “the US political system is faltering.” This American decline, coupled with Trump’s willingness to abandon US commitments around the world, will create room for Beijing to exert its influences. Trump’s East Asia policies on territorial disputes, trade, climate change and nuclear proliferation will involve uncertainties that will probably hurt American credibility and leadership in the region.
Regarding the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, the president-elect suggested that the US respond economically and militarily against “Chinese adventurism.” It’s still unclear as to how exactly that could work, but it seems Trump believes that he can leverage the two countries’ trade relationship to pressure China into cooling its aggression in the South China Sea. At the same time, he has implied that a US-supported military escalation in the South China Sea will work in the favor of the US in renegotiating its trade relationship with China. This dual approach seems to create a contradiction—American policymakers cannot possibly use trade as leverage over security matters and attempt to use security policy as leverage on trade at the same time.
Further complicating this matter, Trump has suggested major revisions of the US-Japan military treaty, framing Japan as a freeloader benefitting from US protection but free from responsibilities to the United States. This decrease in security commitments for one of the strongest American allies in the region will embolden Beijing to enact more aggressive policies towards Japan in trade and on the East China Sea.
As promised on the campaign trail, on the first day of his presidency, Trump will label China as a currency manipulator in order to open negotiations over the trade deficit. This act will be a jumping board for countermeasures such as imposing tariffs, instating a zero-tolerance policy on the theft of US intellectual property, and reducing the deficit to prevent China from using US Treasury bonds as leverage against the US. The Trump administration’s unilateral measures threaten to spark a trade war with China, which, like a military scuffle, will likely benefit no one in the end.
Trump’s rhetoric on a potential trade war marks the beginning of a openly protectionist phase for American trade. He pledged to renegotiate or withdraw from the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), repeatedly accusing it with a barrage of negative remarks characteristic of his entire campaign. Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter” has also called for American withdrawal from negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement with US allies in Latin America, Oceania and Southeast Asia. Many analysts have seen the TPP as a potential rival to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is headed by China and includes Australia, China, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom, among many other countries. The TPP was already on life support before the election, and with Trump accusing it of being a “death blow for American manufacturing,” the deal will almost certainly die. The death of TPP will almost certainly lead to China’s growing presence in global trade amidst increasing American protectionism.
Insofar as climate negotiations with China are concerned, Trump believes that the recent US-China climate deal only serves to hamstring American businesses with higher production costs and allows Chinese entrepreneurs to swoop in with lower prices. The US-China climate deal, in which both countries pledged to reduce emissions under the goals set by last year’s Paris Accord, will almost certainly be scrapped or substantially revised. The two countries currently produce 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Perhaps the most concerning East Asian issue of a Trump presidency is nuclear proliferation. In a town hall on CNN during the presidential campaign, Trump suggested that if countries like Japan and South Korea possessed nuclear weapons, then there would be less of a burden on the US to protect them from North Korea and China. Trump’s cost-cutting proposal to weaken US military presence in the region could in fact encourage those otherwise peaceful allies to obtain nuclear arms, escalating tensions in East Asia and setting an extremely dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.
Trump’s campaign promises certainly warrant a pessimistic projection of what his policies might entail for the future of East Asia. In the meantime, it could be a mistake to base how Trump will govern solely based on his campaign rhetoric. There is hope, though still unsubstantiated, that he will pivot to a more centrist and less iconoclastic position. That said, when Trump was asked in a recent Wall Street Journal interview if his rhetoric on the campaign trail went too far, Trump simply replied, “No, I won.” Scores of Republican foreign policy professionals have publicly declared that they did not support Trump as a candidate and will not support his administration. Therefore, it is possible that actual US policies will be a compromise between Trump’s radical proposals and conventional wisdom within the establishment. Given how this election is gone, no one can reliably predict what the next four years will bring.
Nicholas is a junior at Princeton University and an associate editor of this magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yifu is a senior at Yale College and the managing editor of this magazine. Contact him at email@example.com.
Illustration // Zishi Li