By Prabasi Nepali
US President Donald Trump has finally completed the last lap of his marathon 13-day, 5-nation tour of East and South-East Asia, and the United States and the world at large have breathed a sigh of relief that nothing untoward has happened in the crisis-laden region. Surprisingly, it was a self-disciplined exercise for him. Trump himself had given ample reason to ruffle feathers all around and above all to provoke the leader of North Korea Marshall Kim Jong Un. However, towards the end, after the North Korean state media disparaged him as a “lunatic old man”, Trump shot back sarcastically by calling Kim “short and fat”!
It can now be said that Trump has not achieved very much during his visit; but expectations were in any case not very high before he set out. [Luckily] he mostly kept to the scripted speeches, and [thank God] his tweets were not sensational. He managed to avoid any major faux pas, and for this we have to be thankful. Above all, the war of words did not escalate into a war of deadly weapons!
However, whether intended or not, certain settings have been made and specific conclusions can be drawn. First, Trump’s misguided policy of “America First” has resulted in various developments, not only in the region, but around the world. His administration has now definitely sacrificed America’s leading role in international relations. It is no longer interested in maintaining its leadership role as the prime mover of a rules-based international system. Trump and his administration now favour a more bilateral approach – rejecting ‘multilateralism’ to the world’s problems.
Second, as a corollary from the first, Trump will face strong head winds trying to tackle the myriad of problems facing his administration, both domestically and internationally. Thus, he will get nowhere trying to solve trade questions bilaterally, whether with China, Japan, South Korea, among others. His lamenting of America’s trade deficit with a whole range of countries will not change matters in his favour, unless he undertakes much needed reforms at home, and a cooperative attitude abroad. As a result of the changed atmosphere in the “Asia-Pacific” region, most countries have now decided to go ahead ‘collectively’ – even without the participation of the United States! The other 20 leaders formally endorsed the idea of a liberal trade regime, arbitrated by the World Trade Organization (WTO). In addition, the 11 remaining members of the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TTP) agreed to push forward, creating a “broader, free-trade area” across Asia that will pointedly exclude the United States.
Third, Trump has heaped lavish praise on China’s President Xi Jinping, who has emerged after the 19th Congress of Communist Party of China as the undisputed leader of the rising power. In fact, Trump has conceded that China is now in effect a world power. Due in greater part because of self-imposed restrictions and the policy of withdrawing from multinational institutions and agreements, the US has now embarked on a self-restricting role in world affairs. The world is, therefore, no longer uni-polar as it was after the self-destruction of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th Century. The world is now bipolar to all intents and purposes. The US can no longer act unilaterally in international affairs, and this of its own volition. No doubt, in the area of armaments, the US is very far ahead, but “overkill” is no major strategic advantage, as the confrontation with North Korea has so eminently shown.
Fourth, Trump’s diminished stature in international politics relates directly to his dwindling domestic support and his own unpredictable actions. Thereby, his ability to act in the international arena is getting increasingly difficult. The internal determinants of US foreign policy are coming very much into play. Thus, even his critics in the Republican Party are undermining his international role.
Fifth, Trump has abdicated America’s leading role in the ‘Free World’ and particularly as a champion of basic human rights. At the ASEAN forum in Manila – his last stop – he did meet Myanmar’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and of course his host Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. But he demonstrated dastardly cowardice in not condemning the abysmal human rights record in both countries. In Myanmar, the deadly brutes in uniform have unleashed a reign of terror in their Rakhine state and forced the barbaric exodus of over 600,000 Rohingya Moslems to neighbouring Bangladesh. In Manila, Trump praised Duterte profusely instead of taking him to task for the rampant extra-judicial killings of his ongoing ‘war on drugs’. It must have been a huge joke for all the assembled leaders when he told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang that he was ready to arbitrate in the South China Sea dispute since he was “a very good mediator” [!]
Because of the trust deficit, even such steadfast allies as Japan and South Korea have realized that the US under Trump is a most unreliable partner. Even as Trump was still in Asia, they have gone rapidly to mend fences with China, now seen as the co-paramount power in the Asia-Pacific. On the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (both with impressive domestic backing) and agreed to deepen cooperation between the two East Asian powers on North Korea. They also agreed to stimulate talks for an early implementation of a communication mechanism between their military forces, and to hold a trilateral summit with South Korea at the earliest possible opportunity. Abe also said Xi told him the meeting marked a “new start of Japan-China relations”. At the urging of Japanese geo-strategic experts, the US State Department had floated the new-fangled geo-political concept of the “Indo-Pacific” region, comprising both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in a narrower sense consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia in a quadrilateral cooperative axis. Trump basically failed to push this grandiose agenda, and it has turned out to be damp squib. In any case, China would have considered it as having hostile intent and attempting to “contain” it in various spheres.
The two presidents of China and South Korea also met on the sidelines of the APEC summit and made great strides forward in their bilateral relations. Xi Jinping and his counterpart Moon Jae-in underlined the need to manage the security situation on the Korean peninsula in a stable manner and agreed to resolve North Korea-related tensions peacefully. Specifically, the two countries agreed to strengthen strategic talks on all levels. There was also concurrence to rapidly normalize bilateral exchanges in all sectors. This was a reiteration of late last month’s bilateral accord in which the two countries agreed to end a year-long economic standoff over the deployment of a US anti-missile system in South Korea. South Korean companies catering to Chinese customers had suffered hugely because of the backlash from China which had vehemently opposed the deployment of the ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defence’ System (THAAD). Xi was now quoted as saying it would be ‘new beginnings and a good start.’
Fazit: Trump’s Asia jaunt, according to the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, has brought into focus that China “has the reserves, the surpluses and the growth to shape the world”. And more important, “it has the pride and the confidence to think long term.” In stark contrast, “America First”, Trump’s “ugly slogan, reeks of retrenchment”.