Trump offers opening for China’s initiatives

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/12 19:03:40

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

US President Donald Trump kicked off his first trip to Asia earlier this month. With stops in five countries, the 12-day trip will be the longest Asia visit for any US president since George H.W. Bush's trip in late 1991 and early 1992. Some observers have said the length of the trip shows the importance the US attaches to the region.

Since Trump took office, the new administration has offered no clues as to US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, especially Southeast Asia. Because of this, Asian countries are waiting to see what message Trump sends during meetings with Asian leaders, especially when he attends an event hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines.

First, Trump's participation in the ASEAN meeting should be considered routine and of no special significance. The US decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has generated great economic and strategic uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region, as it ran counter to the Obama administration's rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific. Without a clear new strategy for the region, economic and trade relations between the US and ASEAN are unlikely to see major changes in the near future.

Second, contrary to the Obama administration's pivot to Asia strategy and efforts to strengthen political, economic and security ties with ASEAN, the Trump administration has clearly focused more on mutually beneficial bilateral economic and trade deals with major powers and major allies, instead of participating in multilateral agreements that require it to assume more responsibilities and commitments.

Under multilateral framework agreements like the TPP, the US, as a major power, is supposed to shoulder more responsibilities and allow small countries to benefit most from the pact, but it is clear that Trump doesn't like such "unequal" terms. The move to pull the US out of the TPP reflects the fact that the Trump administration puts more emphasis on safeguarding US economic and trade interests to protect its domestic industries and employment. With economic interests as his top priority, Trump has attached great importance to developing or re-negotiating free trade agreements with major countries, pushing for more reciprocal trade and exchange of benefits, while avoiding multilateral action.

This doesn't mean that the US completely ignores its ties with Southeast Asian countries. The US still has a robust trade and investment relationship with the members of ASEAN. Nevertheless, judging from the current situation, Trump's Asia-Pacific focus will be more about denuclearization of North Korea and US trade deficits.

According to Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs H.R. McMaster, Trump's Asia trip aims to achieve three goals: "strengthen international resolve to denuclearize North Korea; promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and advance American prosperity through fair and reciprocal trade and economic practices." Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration apparently has little interest in continuing to invest in building a new order across the Asia-Pacific region.

More importantly, the Trump administration hasn't announced any clear foreign policy guidelines for the Asia-Pacific region or for Southeast Asia, which is why the status quo persists in the economic and trade relationship between the US and ASEAN.

Third, the uncertainty the US has generated in Southeast Asia is actually conducive to China's promotion of a regional economic cooperation framework. Since ASEAN cannot benefit much from the TPP without US participation, joining China's Belt and Road initiative and establishing other multilateral agreement systems like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is apparently more in line with the group's interests.

The article was compiled based on an interview with Teng Jianqun, director of the Department for American Studies at China Institute of International Studies.


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