By Tony Nash and George David Banks
As Donald Trump marches closer to winning the Republican nomination, many Asian governments have started sketching out plans for how to engage America under his potential leadership.
Most assume that economic nationalism would define U.S. foreign policy for the first time in decades. Furthermore, Mr. Trump’s calls for key U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea “to pay their fair share” for global security efforts are viewed as a strategic bargaining chip in revising bilateral economic relations in America’s favor.
Would such a shift in U.S. policy toward the Asia Pacific region spell trouble? Some U.S. pundits think so, but the nations of the Asia Pacific are accustomed to working with countries that put their own self-interest first. All countries in northeast Asia — China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — are led by nationalist governments, as are India, Indonesia and Thailand. Japan’s Shinzo Abe, India’s Narendra Modi, and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, to name a few, have popular democratic support and are unashamed in representing their respective country’s interests ahead of all others.
Nationalist policies on issues like immigration are common across the Asia Pacific. Australia, New Zealand and Japan all take tough approaches to immigration that are closer to Mr. Trump’s views than Secretary Hillary Clinton’s. Australia, for example, houses illegal immigrants in offshore detention centers. Further, securing work visas in most Asian countries has not been easy in the past and is growing increasingly difficult across the region, as citizens question the value of foreign labor.
Certainly, a nationalist American president would likely be viewed as a change of course, but one that would eventually be taken in stride by our allies and trading partners.
From an economic perspective, Mr. Trump’s priorities would likely focus on currencies, trade and investment in America. These are familiar priorities for Asian leaders. Nearly every Asian currency depreciated against the U.S. dollar in 2015, a trend that is likely to continue. On this front, a Trump presidency would likely apply substantial pressure on both Japan and China.
On trade, Mr. Trump has disavowed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), so its days would be numbered. A Trump administration could use the TPP’s demise to reset economic relations with Beijing. For example, Washington could seek further enhancement of the Bilateral Investment Treaty with China, which would create a level playing field for investors on both sides of the Pacific. So far this year, Chinese companies have invested $39 billion in America, nearly three times the investment made last year. Continued focus on investment relationships that create jobs and tax revenues should be a priority for a Trump administration.
The last key area is defense and security. While America has many allies in Asia, the strength of those relationships has eroded in recent years. The current administration’s promised “pivot to Asia” has proven to be little more than empty rhetoric. Certainly, our current on-again, off-again presence in the South China Sea has only exasperated tensions among our Southeast Asian allies.
The United States needs to establish a real presence in the region by strengthening its existing relationships and enhancing regional cooperation. China’s growing dominance in the region has been unchecked by American posturing, driving a traditionally non-aligned country like Indonesia into the arms of both Russia and China.
This trend would likely continue under a Trump administration as America would most likely avoid neoconservative adventurism. Issues like the South China Sea would likely be left to the immediate players to resolve, with America playing a facilitator and backstop rather than a direct interventionist.
Undoubtedly, the economic nationalism of a Trump administration would be an abrupt departure from the American status quo of the past two decades. Would the changes prove disastrous for U.S. relationships in Asia? Unlikely.
In fact, a shift in U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific region is needed. A redefinition of America’s relationships in the region is in order, as many of these nations transform from emerging markets to middle income and even developed markets, with new levels of education, wealth, and capability that require new levels of respect.