Commentary | 06 November 2017

Donald Trump's Asian tour

Asian leaders will be watching Trump for reassurance that the US will be a democratic ally in the Indo-Pacific. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review (Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Asian leaders will be watching Trump for reassurance that the US will be a democratic ally in the Indo-Pacific. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review (Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is about to begin his swing through Asia, and foreign policy watchers in Washington and around the region are nervous about what he might say and how he will behave. Those worries are not misplaced but they should be tempered. History is not just about events but also trends.

To illustrate the point, consider a counterfactual: what if it were Hillary Clinton sitting in the Oval Office preparing for her first presidential trip to Asia? Would things be much different?

The big Asia policy settings would probably look pretty similar. Trump's East Asia policy settings seem to be on autopilot – they look much more like those of his predecessors than what he promised in the campaign. Washington Asia specialist Mike Green says the Administration "has developed a rather traditional strategic framework for American engagement in Asia".

No doubt Clinton would have been less bellicose in her North Korea rhetoric, but after Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests, her administration would have tried the same combination of policies: tightened sanctions, heightened military readiness and persuading China to do more. Yes, Trump got rid of the TPP, the trans-Pacific trade deal that was Barack Obama's signature policy for the region. But Clinton ran against TPP too. The most we can say is that Clinton might have launched a new regional trade initiative to replace TPP, and Trump has not.

The little differences

There are some smaller differences too. Clinton would have been less generous to authoritarian leaders around the region than Trump has been. And it is likely that various senior State Department policy and ambassadorial jobs that have sat vacant for months would have been staffed earlier, and that the State Department generally would be better funded and enjoy higher morale.

But these things are dwarfed by the momentous changes happening in the region, most importantly of course the decades-long shift of economic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and with it the rise of China as a military and diplomatic power that is now directly challenging America's leadership in the region. The other big strategic change is the North Korea's nuclear weapons capability, in particular the fact that it is on the threshold of fielding a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the continental US. That's a development which could erode America's entire alliance structure in Asia because Washington's allies will begin to doubt that the US would ever risk one of its own cities for the sake of defending them.

You get a sense of Washington's diminished place in Asia in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent speech about India, in which he said "In this period of uncertainty … India needs a reliable partner on the world stage. I want to make clear, with our shared values and vision for global stability, peace and prosperity, the United States is that partner". Tillerson talked about the US and India as "the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific".

Pleading Tillerson

It's a startlingly ambitious proposal, given that US-India ties are still relatively distant compared to those Washington enjoys with allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia. That suggests a hint of desperation from the American side. There's a pleading tone in Tillerson's remarks, as if the US is almost offering itself to a somewhat reluctant India. It's also notable that Tillerson is offering a partnership of equals, two beacons jointly watching over the Indo-Pacific. Elsewhere in the speech he says India and the US should have the "two greatest militaries" in the world.

So the long-run trends are against America, or at least against America maintaining the kind of unchallenged leadership it enjoyed in Asia after the Cold War. These trends are beyond the power of any US president to shift, whether they are Democrat or Republican.

But of course the US president is not a mere passenger. Trump can shape events decisively in mere moments, as he did at the NATO summit in June when he left out of his speech any reference to the "one-for-all, all-for-one" provision in the treaty that assures allies that the US would come to their defence if attacked. Trump's speech had been through minute internal scrutiny for weeks, yet he seems to have changed it on a whim – his advisers did not know about the omission of any reference to Article 5 of the treaty until the speech was delivered. Another such moment of rhetorical drama could shift the mood in Asia too.