Few analysts in the United States or East Asia anticipated the speed with which the Trump administration would swing a wrecking ball into the complex and longstanding machinery of US relations with the Asia Pacific. Yet in its first six months, it is well on its way to eviscerating many of the most valuable tools in the US’s diplomatic toolbox.
The destruction starts from the top. President Donald Trump disdains serious engagement with the nuances of foreign policy. Every character flaw that he demonstrated before taking office – serial lying; intellectual laziness; loyalty to himself; the coddling of white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan and violent right-wing extremists – has grown more toxic since his inauguration.
Trump’s unquenchable narcissism spawns sycophantic cabinet meetings and ego-gratifying reports on his favourable media coverage. His foreign policy “guidance” is reduced to blusterous tweets such as his vow to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea.
Foreign policy and the Asia Pacific enjoy low priority. Secretary of Defence James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor HR McMaster scramble to foster foreign policy coherence. Numerous foreign policy experts refuse to join the administration, leaving key agencies and embassies devoid of senior appointees.
Meanwhile, the administration plans to cut the budget of the State Department by 30 per cent. Longstanding US interlocutors in East Asia are left doubting reassurances that the US’s regional engagement continues unchanged. By early June, the US had reassured Japan 28 times of its defence commitment.
Instead, the White House has prioritised the xenophobic banner of “America First”. Three days into office, Trump issued an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The decision shattered expectations among the remaining 11 signatories who, after years of complex negotiations, anticipated US cooperation in structuring trade for 40 per cent of the global economy. Subsequently, Trump also announced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, a move aimed partly at repaying support among climate change deniers; gas, oil and coal companies; and anti-multilateralists.
Breaking with the Obama administration’s prioritisation of Asia through its “rebalance”, its attention to Southeast Asia, its embrace of multilateralism, and its complex mixture of engagement and hedging toward China, the Trump administration has relegated East Asia to a tertiary geographical priority behind the defeat of Islamic State and improved relations with Russia. Southeast Asia is ignored; multilateralism is scorned; China is threatened with a trade war and North Korea is “checked” by fulminating ad-libs devoid of strategic coherence.
Even more worrisome have been the new administration’s disconcerting attacks on longstanding allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, as well as challenges to the South Korea-US Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Instead of being applauded as mutually beneficial cornerstones of regional stability that ensure a forward US regional presence, all have been lambasted as losing commercial transactions.
China has played Trumpian miscues masterfully. In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a fulsome, if ironic, defence of free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos as the US turned inward. He did much the same on climate change.
China also secured a reversal of Trump’s initial friendliness toward Taiwan by making it clear there would be no summit without an explicit endorsement of the ‘one China’ principle. And following the ego-stroking success of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Xi did his own massaging of Trump’s ego during his visit to Mar-a-Lago, convincing him, among other things, that the Korean peninsula was once part of China.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials rushed approval of dozens of long-stalled Trump trademark requests while Ivanka Trump received similar approvals for her clothing line. Chinese money has gushed into Trump apartments, hotels and catering facilities. The cumulative effect has been an unmistakable acceleration in Chinese influence in Washington.
Finally, US soft power has been pulverised. Longstanding principles of democracy and human rights have effectively disappeared from US foreign policy rhetoric, replaced by unqualified adulation for dictators from the Middle East to the Philippines to Russia. A June 2017 Pew international poll found that the US’s public standing has plummeted since the end of the Obama administration. Three-fifths to three-quarters of those surveyed identified Trump as intolerant, dangerous and arrogant. His signature policy proposals were castigated and confidence in the US president to do the right thing in world affairs fell 55 points in Australia, 54 points in Japan and a stunning 71 points in South Korea.
By the six-month mark, the Trump administration is well on its way to upending 70 years of regional partnerships, institutional allegiances and soft power appeal through cavalier neglect and wilful destruction. Core allies enjoy only tepid, transactional and military support and the countries of Southeast Asia are ignored. China’s already strong influence is accelerating, while administration ineptitude increases the risks of miscalculation with adversaries such as North Korea.
US foreign policy is paying a high price for the electoral results of November 8 last year – but East Asians may find themselves big losers, despite having had no voice in that election.
TJ Pempel is Jack M. Forcey Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. This article is part of a series from East Asia Forum (www.eastasiaforum.org) in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.