China’s Trump card

Coherent Donald Trump policies are yet to materialise. Source: Wikimedia

Making predictions about the next few years became more challenging this month, especially as many of those tasked with doing it wrote off Donald Trump’s chances of winning the US election. 

But one likely winner from the Trump era is China. It now seems unlikely that Washington will unite opposition to Beijing’s expansion into the South China Sea and Trump’s talk of “America first” leaves Vietnam, Japan and Australia alone to oppose the encroaching empire.

The subject of trade seems far more volatile as Asia-Pacific leaders sent a strong message in defence of free trade on Sunday as they concluded a summit inevitably overshadowed by talk of Trump’s protectionism.

The rather uninspiring message from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit was that free trade was mostly positive.

 

US President Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other leaders at the Lima summit were under pressure to defend the concept of open borders against a populist, anti-globalisation sentiment in the US and Europe.

Trump promises to kill Obama’s 12-country regional trade zone, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was designed to stand up to China’s growing dominance. Asean members Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia are TPP signatories.

While campaigning Trump called the proposal a “terrible deal” that would “rape” the US by allowing jobs to go to countries with cheaper labour.

Inevitably filling the vacuum created by the departure of the US will be China, although the process has been going on for decades.

The election of another outspoken populist offering simple solutions to complex problems, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, has speeded up waning US influence in the region. The reorientation of the former US colony towards Beijing has exposed Washington’s waning influence and its failure to persuade Asean to take a united stance on the South China Sea issue.

Obama has also watched as Thailand since 2014 went from a key ally to a pro-Beijing pariah under its incompetent junta.

Trump’s insular rhetoric will probably provide a hammer blow to US influence, which was clearly eroding rapidly regardless.

This might not be all bad news. A reduction in the US military presence might well reduce tensions in the region. Who would argue that the deployment of US special forces on the troubled Philippine island of Mindanao has increased stability?

Obama has made a serious effort to deepen Asean ties. He signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and joined the East Asia Summits.

In 2013, the US became the first power to establish a permanent mission to Asean and this year Obama hosted the first US-Asean summit on American soil.

Now China will fill the void.

China’s Xi has set himself up as the anti-Trump bastion at the Lima summit, defending open markets and offering leadership on other trade agreements to rival TPP. Asean’s leaders have few other options.

An embattled Obama has faced awkward questions from his allies about the future of US policy in his last foreign visit as president.

He has spent the last fortnight clutching at straws and trying to give a message of hope where there is only uncertainty and apprehension.

“How you campaign isn’t always the same as how you govern,” he told a crowd in Lima, defending the “frustrating” nature of democracy.

But Trump’s victory is bad news for Asean’s democratic activists, especially while the European Union is in crisis. And the TPP looks doomed with a Republican-dominated Washington.

Not everyone has given up hope with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key attempting to appeal to the president-elect’s ego by saying that it could be re-branded the “Trump Pacific Partnership.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was hopeful TPP would survive the unexpected “twist in the road”. “I share President Obama’s hope that after the new administration has settled in, deliberated on the matter, and taken advice, it will in due course take a considered decision,” Lee said.

“In the meantime, the other TPP partners should carry on with the ratification process.”

But China is backing its own free-trade zone for Apec, whose 21-members account for nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population and an estimated 60 per cent of the world’s economic activity.

Beijing is also pushing a 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that excludes the US.

As with so much else at the moment, speculating about the fleshy material between Trump’s ears in an attempt to guess how the Oval Office will perform after January is a fruitless exercise. Despite what Obama might say, we have all seen that Trump, with his complete lack of political experience, will say anything, at any time, to win the approval of whoever is listening.