What difference has US President Donald Trump made to America’s standing in the world in his first year of presidency?
What difference has US President Donald Trump made to America’s standing in the world in his first year of presidency? Most of the theatrics suggest that his presidency has, so far, sent out confused signals to the world. He has hardly made any significant dent on the structural trends that are diminishing America’s influence in Asia and around the world. It is rather accelerating America’s inevitable retreat from Asia in the face of China’s rise. Trump has created uncertainty in the global system with his loose play in the North Korean crisis, his confused visa policy towards Indians and Asians and his retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since 2007, traditional export-led Asian economies could hardly implement their trade strategies to count on robust growth from American demand. Domestic demand-led consumption in China was a new driver of growth and an intra-regional hedge against uncertainty. The structural changes now are working in China’s favour—some at America’s expense—all may be pre-dated Trump to an extent, but current policies of the US could disturb the balance in Asia. If Trump has a strategy, it is to accept America’s diminished global reach and to protect against the rapacity of China and the rest. That is the game he was dealt with and seem to be pursuing policies, which accommodates such dimensions.
Trump may be more of a symptom than a cause of America’s problems. A stagnant median income, growing inequality and dwindling social safety net have led to most Americans missing out on the benefits of an open and innovative economy. Some of these structural problems will get worse before they get better with the tax Bill. Leadership in Asia needs an overarching strategic framework that leverages economic, military and diplomatic power towards a grand strategic goal. Trump’s answer to America’s new predicament is to abandon the US strategic goal that has engaged the world’s multilateral assets over three-quarters of a century, and instead to opt for reasserting the use of bilateral power at a time when the US has lost its economic muscle.
Trump’s November 2017 trip to East Asia was a demonstration to show solidarity with East Asia that it cares for the well-being of the region. In relation to N Korea, it was more of a bellicose relationship that still indulges in stating whose ‘nuclear button’ is more powerful. US proposals for bilateral trade deals were greeted with polite silence. Given the Trump administration’s drive to renegotiate the NAFTA and the US-Korea FTA as part of its ‘America first’ agenda, the US credibility as a trustworthy trading partner has been compromised. While the US has been seeking to weaken the global institutions it helped establish, such as WTO, by creating discrimination between developed and developing countries, China has been creating new global institutions—like AIIB—to further its goals. It is by no means clear that the objective of Chinese leadership is to supplant existing institutions with its new initiatives like the Belt and Road initiative. In terms of articulating a long-term vision, China’s Belt and Road programme dwarfs anything that Trump seems capable of offering.
The fear that a new world order might evolve where China will be at the centre has gone mildly viral in countries that have put all the bets on the US. This is not to be unexpected: Security communities struggle to justify alliance relationships that have been injected with such uncertainty by Trump. The world one sees today is far less open to hegemonic influence—China has a powerful interest in appealing to multilateralism, the spirit the leadership exhibited in its 19th Party Congress pledges. How the world is ordered in the future will depend on whether other powers in Asia and elsewhere, including the EU, can compensate for the US vacuum and help to preserve and promote a multipolar international environment.