Trump and the Future of US Power in the Pacific

Donald Trump’s scapegoating, zero-sum economic policies, threats to extort close allies over the continuation of the US forward deployment and his radically laissez-faire approach to nuclear diplomacy, will not only ultimately fail to address Americas’ grievances but also risks the future of the US as a Pacific and global power.

Posted on 06/6/16
By Editors | Via East Asia Forum
(Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons License)

The rise of Donald Trump from ‘joke’ candidate to the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party in the US presidential election primaries has come as a shock not only to the US political establishment, but also globally to those who worry about what a Trump presidency might mean beyond the borders of the United States.

In Asia and the Pacific there are serious concerns over Trump’s foreign policy proposals, which would likely see a radical overhaul and scale back of US engagement in the region. T.J. Pempel states bluntly, in our lead article this week, that ‘a Trump presidency would be catastrophic for Asia’. It could also be catastrophic for the future of US leadership in the region.

Trump’s rise is said to be driven by domestic politics with his supporters exhilarated by ‘a toxic cocktail of anger’. ‘Corporations and top executives offshored the manufacturing jobs that once provided stable middle-class lifestyles for swaths of the American public’, says Pempel. ‘The social safety net is frayed, infrastructure is collapsing and costly education provides little guarantee of upward mobility’. With his ‘self-proclaimed expertise as a deal maker’, Trump declares that he will bring back the good days and make America great again, ostensibly putting US national glory above all other considerations. But rather than providing real solutions to these problems that motivate his support base, Trump lists a ‘catalogue of potential scapegoats, be they Mexicans, minorities or Muslims’.

Trump’s foreign economic policy is unblushingly protectionist. He seems to see trade as something of a zero-sum game where some countries win at the expense of others. He labels regional trade pacts and multilateral institutions as bad deals, blaming the US political elites responsible for negotiating them. Trump fingers countries such as China and Mexico for stealing jobs from American workers. He threatens to rip up existing deals, opposes those in the works such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and suggests slapping a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States and forcing companies to bring their overseas production bases back to the United States.

This zero-sum approach, however, will harm both the US and the global economy. Asia will likely continue to be the engine of global economic growth into the future and US economic interests would be best served by tapping into this growth as it seeks to continue to bolster its tepid recovery in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. A 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods would not only immediately hurt the pockets of the US workers Trump proclaims to champion, but would also unnecessarily risk a trade war, millions of US job losses and likely a global recession.

On foreign security policy, Trump targets decades-long allies such as Japan and South Korea as free riders who in his view refuse to pay their ‘fair share’ for forward deployed US military troops in the region. This is despite the fact that Japanese and South Korean host-nation support, at US$1.67 billion and US$773 million a year respectively, is considered the gold standard globally. What Trump fails to understand is that the US forward deployment strategy is not a mercenary service. The stationing of US military troops in Japan and South Korea are not simply for the purpose of defending those individual countries, but they also serve the broader purpose of underwriting regional stability and maintaining the US-led postwar liberal international order, as Hitoshi Tanaka observes. Without its security alliances with Japan and South Korea, the United States will cease to be a credible Pacific power.

The power vacuum from a sudden US withdrawal would seriously destabilize a delicate regional order in flux, something that is in the interest of no nation. The idea that China would simply be able to walk into this vacuum is also far-fetched.

Without the US security guarantee, the domestic debate over the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the Article 9 peace clause of its Constitution, which prohibits the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, would be instantly turned upside down. The debates over the security related bills passed in September 2015 were highly contentious. The exercise of quickly replacing US deterrence power by expanding Japanese security capabilities and securing legal leeway to resort to the use of force risks unleashing serious regional instability, especially in a circumstance without the assisting framework of the US–Japan alliance as well as under the current tense state of Japan–China relations. Japanese security reforms over the long term would best be premised on enhancing mutual regional security rather than being ordered around an anti-China footing.

Trump has asserted that as president he would be not be fussed about the withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella instigating Japanese and South Korean development of nuclear weapons risks and undermining the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, undoing the good work of those who have worked hard and in part successfully at the reduction of global nuclear stockpiles. This should be of great concern to the established nuclear powers, including the United States and China.

Indeed, the only Asian nation barracking for Trump is perhaps North Korea. Official state media outlet DPRK Today has urged Americans to vote for Trump in the name of its Yankee go home’ policy aimed at getting US troops out of the Korean peninsula.

Trump’s experience as a reality TV personality has lent him the skills to speak effectively to the frustrations of those Americans who have been left behind by the economic changes brought on by globalization. Yet his scapegoating, zero-sum economic policies, threats to extort close allies over the continuation of the US forward deployment and his radically laissez-faire approach to nuclear diplomacy, will not only ultimately fail to address their grievances but also risks the future of the US as a Pacific and global power.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article first appeared at the East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.

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