Letter from Washington: Trump’s bizarre and dangerous foreign policy
13 Apr 2016|

Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Hawk

Following Senator Ted Cruz’s much expected defeat of Donald Trump in the 5 April Wisconsin primary, Trump’s goal of winning the majority of delegates by the time the Republican Party holds its convention in July has now become even more elusive.

Although the odds of becoming his party’s presidential candidate are against him, it’s still possible that he could receive the nomination even if he doesn’t win in the first ballot. He is, after all, a great deal-maker—as he keeps reminding everyone.

Accordingly, it’s important to examine Donald Trump’s views of some of the critical international issues he would need to deal with were he to get to the Oval Office. And, quite frankly, based on the few statements on foreign affairs he’s made on the campaign trail—most of them incoherent and unfocused—there’s little to feel confident about. Quite the contrary; were Trump to implement some of his convoluted and confused ideas on foreign affairs, the world would undoubtedly be a more dangerous place.

Let’s look at some of the remarks he’s made on foreign policy, particularly on three issues that would have deep ramifications for the Asia–Pacific region and beyond.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post in March, Trump was asked what he thought about China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea and how he would deal with the situation. He argued that the best way to halt China’s militarisation of the artificial islands would be to threaten its access to the US market. He repeated that threat in another long interview with The New York Times. While China does hold some $4 trillion of US reserves, in the long-run China’s access to the US market is critical for its continued economic growth which is heavily dependent on being able to export its cheap products. But more importantly, continued economic growth is vital to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. So if such a measure were implemented by a Trump administration, it’s unlikely that Beijing would simply roll over. Furthermore, the financial knock-on effects for the rest of the world of a trade showdown between its two largest economies would be enormous.

Staying in the Asia–Pacific, Trump has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t believe the US gains anything by having bases in South Korea and Japan. Accordingly, he said that he would pull US forces from the two countries unless the host governments ‘substantially increased their contributions to the costs of housing and feeding those troops’. Scaling back the US military’s presence in such a manner would be welcomed heartily by Beijing, as those bases are the linchpin of American primacy in Northeast Asia. It would also ring alarm bells with America’s edgy regional allies and friends who are already worried about Washington’s commitment to the rebalance. It would force regional countries to increase their defence spending to compensate for the US withdrawal. But, more worrisome, it would most likely make regional allies less supportive of America’s approach to the region which would in make it easier for China to assert itself in the Asia–Pacific.

However, much more alarming than the military vacuum which an American departure from Northeast Asia would create is Trump’s statement that he would be ‘open to allowing Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenals rather than depend on the American nuclear umbrella’. Such a dangerous policy position goes against the many international agreements and protocols designed to limit nuclear weapons proliferation. If such a position became official policy in a Trump administration, it isn’t possible to sufficiently stress how destabilising it would be to have two additional nuclear-armed countries in an already highly toxic and dangerous environment as is Northeast Asia. Moreover, it would give the green light for other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons, essentially beginning an Asia–Pacific arms race.

Turning to the Middle East, Trump has also indicated that because the US is now less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was before, there’s less reason for US troops to remain there. As with a withdrawal from bases in Northeast Asia, a US military withdrawal from the Gulf—the US 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain—would be a strategic disaster. Another military vacuum would be created, making it more difficult for the US to protect its allies, including Israel, and its vital strategic interests in the region.

With the Americans gone, Iran would easily fill the vacuum and further expand its presence in the wider Middle East. Already Iran is playing a destabilising role by supporting militarily the al-Assad regime in Syria, backing its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, and having a major influence on the Iraqi government. With an American withdrawal, the Iranians—now free of the sanctions shackles—would feel emboldened to press their presence even more, making the Saudis and the other Gulf states very nervous indeed. And it would give the already restive Shiite population in the Gulf countries a boost in confidence in their opposition to the Sunni-dominated Gulf governments. That would mean bad news for the stability of the Middle East.

So in the unlikely event that Trump wins the Republican Party nomination and, even more improbably, goes on to win the general election in November, we could expect radical changes to the White House’s approach to some of the more pressing foreign affairs issues. For all intents and purposes, Trump wants to rip up the post-WWII international order but without suggesting an alternative to replace it. In that regard, he’s effectively a crypto-anarchist disguised as an isolationist. Fortunately Congress would be there to block or dilute any ill-considered foreign affairs decisions by President Trump. However, that isn’t the way for a superpower to run an effective foreign policy. On the contrary, such a scenario would undoubtedly be exploited by China and Russia, which could only mean bad news for global stability.