The election of Donald Trump is the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb, an explosion that not only destroys the immediate environment but also scatters radioactive fallout far away, with damage that can last for years.
The first casualties in the US are obvious—Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, and the political establishment in the US writ large, although some familiar faces from inside the Washington Beltway will no doubt sheepishly turn up in Trump’s administration.
The potential damage to America’s standing and interest in the Asia-Pacific is also clear. Trump has long been antagonistic towards Japan, starting from the trade wars of the eighties. More recently, he has threatened to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and has said the US Treasury should immediately declare Beijing a currency manipulator.
On national security, Trump has singled out Japan, South Korea and NATO for freeloading on the US, vowing that they will pay a greater share of the cost of American troops on their soil. He seems indifferent to blowing up the postwar status quo, and the prospect of Japan and South Korea going nuclear, to take responsibility for their own security.
All of this is consistent with views Trump has espoused for decades. He is anti-free trade, suspicious of globalisation and unconvinced about Washington’s role as the prime security guarantor in places far from the homeland, in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Asked by Playboy magazine in 1990 to describe President Trump’s foreign policy, Trump replied:
‘He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing. … We’re being laughed at around the world, defending Japan.’
All that rings true today. The most damaging impact to Pax Americana in the Asia-Pacific, though, might be in the longer-term fallout rather than the immediate explosions that we’re witnessing now.
For all of the dramatic cycles of US domestic and diplomatic politics in the postwar era, through the Korean and Vietnam wars, Watergate, the strategic drift of the early year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the disastrous second Iraq war and the financial crisis of 2008, the US has always displayed a capacity to renew itself and its global standing.
The US remains the largest economy in the world by some distance. It still has military and intelligence assets spread throughout the Asia-Pacific, from South Korea all the way down to Australia. In the short-term, Trump can do little to change that, even if he wanted to do.
On top of its hard assets, America also has had huge soft power appeal as an open, vibrant and creative society with intangible ingredients of success that foreigners would love to be able to emulate.
With or without Trump, the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific is in the midst of huge change. Long before the US election, regional nations were increasingly feeling squeezed between the superpower they have long been comfortable with, the US, and its rising rival, China, which would ultimately like to replace it as the regional hegemon.
No nation in the region wants to be forced to choose between the US and China. Nearly all would like both of these superpowers to co-exist and co-operate in a way that benefits all.
Trump, an unpredictable narcissist with zero governing experience, has the capacity to upend that equation in ways that will run down the position of the US and elevate the standing of China. Nations that are already hedging their bets will start instinctively to lean towards Beijing.
In some scenarios, regional leaders could warm to Trump. Long an aficionado of strongmen leaders, he is likely to be generally indifferent to complaints about human rights abuses. Cambodia’s Hun Sen has applauded his win. The Philippines Rodrigo Duterte also issued a positive statement.
As someone who prides himself as an expert negotiator, Trump may also be convinced that he needs to shore up ties with Japan and ASEAN nations to strengthen his hand in dealing with Beijing. Shinzo Abe’s rapid outreach to Trump—he was one of the first foreign leaders to talk to him—suggests he is thinking along those lines too.
But Trump’s longstanding views may push him in the opposite direction. His instinctive reaction in any disagreement is to pick a fight with his opponent. There’s no bigger target in Asia than China, which Trump repeatedly attacked on the campaign trail. That threatens to be a disaster if it gets out of control. A trade war with China, after all, is effectively a trade war with Asia, because of the way that manufacturing supply chains wind their way through multiple countries before finally being shipped from China to the US.
The Trump’s team most important adviser on China is academic, Peter Navarro, who has long demonized China as an enemy of the US. Asked about China, Navarro made no bones about the chances of commercial conflict with China. ‘To those who say Donald Trump will start a trade war, Trump says we are already in a trade war,’ he said, ‘it’s long past time we fought back.’
Trump is largely ignorant of, or indifferent to, the region’s increasingly important regional forums, like the East Asia leaders’ annual summit. Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a point of turning up to regional meetings, to display their commitment to the region. Trump may fall back into a pattern of benign neglect.
If Trump succeeds at restoring vitality to the US economy, then the rest of the world might be willing to indulge his vanities and ignore his nastiness. But if he really does mean half of what he said on the campaign trail, then Asian nations will have to think long and hard about a new start themselves.
If Donald Trump’s America will no longer underwrite their prosperity and security, the countries that relied on the US will have to find that support somewhere else.