What’s at stake for Asia in the Trump era?

The prospect of Trump withdrawing U.S. troops from Japan and the border between South and North Korea poses one of the biggest threats to regional security in Asia. Experts are nervously trying to make sense of Trump’s policies for the region, particularly China, as well as the impact of a new world order.

The U.S. has played an integral part in Asia’s economic, diplomatic and security affairs for decades. Many policymakers, especially from U.S. allies, would like to see the country continue playing that role instead of ceding ground to Beijing’s influence.

However, Trump has signalled a decreased U.S. presence in the region and has already questioned the ‘One China’ policy. The prospect of greater U.S. disengagement could stunt the progress made in recent decades in the region. Analysts suggest that greater and continuous collaboration between the U.S. and China is needed to ensure stability and prosperity throughout Asia.

U.S.-China collaboration over North Korea

Speaking on the Has the Game Changed? panel at a three-day conference hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School), National University of Singapore, Christopher Hill, a former U.S. diplomat and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, explained that a good relationship with China is important for the security interests of both the U.S. and Asia.

“We need to develop patterns of co-operation with China, and over North Korea,” Hill said. “Because sometime in the next four years and maybe even shorter, North Korea is going to be able to stand up a missile and have a nuclear device in that missile, saying ‘this missile and this device is able to hit the U.S. mainland’.”

Cheol-Hee Park, Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University, added that North Korea was not only a threat to South Korea, but also to other countries around the globe.

“North Korea is the most significant destabiliser, spoiler, problem child in the region,” Park said. “They are violating a lot of the international laws. They continue to develop nuclear weapons, trying to launch missiles against repeated warnings. If North Korea provokes us in a massive manner, it’s not just a concern for South Korea, Japan or the United States.”

He urged that all countries, especially China, should be involved in solving this security issue.

Due to a frosty relationship between China and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear advances, bilateral trade fell by almost 15 per cent in 2015.

Although China remains North Korea’s biggest trading partner, it temporarily banned imports of North Korean coal last December as part of a U.N. Security Council resolution meant to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear weapons programme.

Destabilising effect of South China Sea disputes

While North Korea will clearly be on Trump’s radar, many analysts predict stability in the region, particularly around the South China Sea, could also be affected if the U.S. adopts a more isolationist stance.

“Are we prepared for an American retreat? If you ask me, I think we’re not ready,” Park said. “China has some kind of aspiration for regional order modification. If China continues to rely on assertive actions to intimidate the neighbours and then increase its influence in the region, one possibility is to create a counter-coalition against China, which is also not good for the Chinese.”

South China Sea disputes have led to Asia’s most divisive sovereignty disagreement. Several nations, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, have all claimed territory in the resource-rich South China Sea, which is one of the most strategically important shipping routes in the world.

According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Defense, 30 per cent of global maritime trade (over U.S.$5 trillion in goods) passes through this trade route each year – a fifth of which is maritime trade bound for the U.S.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea were not a major part of Trump’s campaign, and the U.S. has said it will not take sides on the issue. However, it has been conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations close to Chinese-held islands to ensure access to key shipping and air routes is clear.

“If China tries to assert the South China Sea as a core interest, what does that mean for ASEAN countries who have a direct interest?” Hill said. “Core interest is essentially another way of saying ‘we don’t negotiate core interest’. There is a little element of arrogance there, which is worrisome.”

Dr Qingguo Jia, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, pointed out that while the region is paying close attention to the South China Sea issue, the international community should focus on working together on the new international order.

“We have problems in the South China Sea, but these things should be carefully and pragmatically managed,” he said. “Then we can address more important issues, such as establishing new types of great power relations with the U.S., defending the international order and trying to reinvent or improve the international order together with other countries, including the U.S.. So I think co-operation and collaboration on that basis would be more fruitful.”

The way forward: Engaging on multiple aspects of U.S.-China relations

It may take some time before a clearer picture of Trump’s policies emerge, but ultimately there are many facets to U.S.-China relations that should be acknowledged and developed.

“I think there are many areas where the U.S. and China can work collaboratively and positively,” said Merit E. Janow, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. “I would hope that at some point soon, a more nuanced policy will start to get articulated. We don’t have the [full] Asia team in place in this administration, nor have we seen a full articulation of U.S.-Asia or U.S.-China policy.”

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the LKY School, who chaired the panel session, expects China to emerge as a so-called responsible ‘stakeholder’, provided there is regional and international collaboration.

“Traditionally when a great power emerges, the global order should be shaken,” he said. “It hasn’t been shaken [by China becoming the second-largest economy globally], and it has been remarkably stable. Unfortunately, if Donald Trump carries on with his approach, then we will actually have a geopolitical shake-up. So if we can persuade Donald Trump that China cannot fit into 140 [Twitter] characters, it would mean that you are handling a much more complex geopolitical situation, with equally complex policies. I think if we do that, we can create a better world.”


This is an event coverage piece for APSIA-Foreign Affairs-LKYSPP Conference: Has the Game Changed?Asia and the World: Managing the Rise of Asia which was held at the LKY School on 7 January 2017.

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