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Trump holds the line on foreign policy

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | November 13, 2017

For the first time since US President Donald Trump took office, a reality check is possible on the foreign policy platform he espoused during the 2016 campaign. Most of the key elements of that platform faced the litmus test one way or another during his 11-day Asian tour, which concludes today. How does the scorecard look?

On a scale of 10, one can say it stands at 8-9. Trump’s performance through the tour of the 5 Asian states – Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines – shows that there has been a remarkable consistency in terms of the foreign policies he pledged to deliver if elected as president.

The first key element in the Asia-Pacific context has been Trump’s total rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which the Obama administration had negotiated. The Asian tour put to test whether he’d hold the line to scrap the TTP. The pressure was immense, led by Japan and Australia, that the TTP should be revived in some form.

But Trump stuck to his ‘Nyet’. In his speech at the APEC summit in Da Nang on Friday, he reiterated that his administration would only seek bilateral trade agreements with the Asian countries. In fact, he let loose a volley on the WTO as well. That leaves Japan to lead a coalition of 11 countries originally a part of TPP – Japan, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, New Zealand and Brunei – to make their own deal.

It is unlikely that the effort to revive the TPP will go very far after Trump made it clear that the US has no interest in it. In any case, the latest development – Canada’s decision last week to pull out as well – virtually means that the efforts to revive the TPP in some form are unraveling.

Now, the TPP was supposed to have provided the vital underpinning for the Obama administration’s containment strategy against China (known as ‘pivot to Asia’.) This brings us to another Trump platform. During the 2016 campaign, it was apparent that Trump had no interest in pursuing a containment strategy against China.

Of course, candidate Trump was highly critical of China. But that was for other reasons – over the issue of trade deficit, currency manipulation, breach of intellectual property rights, market access, taking away US jobs and so on. The criticism continues. But then, Trump intends to sort out the issues directly with the Chinese leadership.

The point is, a containment strategy against China is unviable and unsustainable sans the TPP, but Trump couldn’t care less. The Asian tour has further confirmed his panache for transactional diplomacy, which he thinks is the optimal approach from the perspective of ‘America First’.

Trump is not a grand strategist; nor is he professorial like Barack Obama. He has no time or patience for geopolitics woven onto the tapestry of a comprehensive Asia-Pacific strategy. The Asian tour brings this out very clearly.

Nonetheless, it has been a most productive tour for ‘America First’. In Japan and South Korea he pushed arms exports. He got South Korea to increase its share of the financial cost of maintaining the big US military bases. He has lifted the cap on South Korea’s missile development program. These are in line with his approach to the importance of cost sharing and burden sharing by the US’ allies.

The “state visit-plus” to China was of course the high noon of the Asian tour. Trump wrapped up deals worth $235 billion, which ought to translate as tens of thousands of new jobs in the US economy.

Was he perturbed that China is overshadowing the US as the region’s principal driver of growth in Southeast Asia? Trump’s APEC speech showed no signs of it. He never once berated China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Ironically, he complimented the Chinese leadership for serving the national interests effectively! He didn’t show signs of competing with China for the ASEAN’s friendship, either.

Candidate Trump had shown an aversion toward US interventions in foreign countries except when American interests are directly involved. Indeed, North Korea was the only ‘talking point’ in his agenda.

Incredibly enough, Trump didn’t even mention the territorial disputes in the South China Sea in his remarks at the US-ASEAN summit in Manila earlier today. Instead, Trump’s focus was on economics. He said in the speech:

  • We have the highest stock market we’ve ever had. We have the lowest unemployment in 17 years. The value of stocks has risen $5.5 trillion. And companies are moving into the United States. A lot of companies are moving. They’re moving back. They want to be there. The enthusiasm levels are the highest ever recorded on the charts. So we’re very happy about that, and we think that bodes very well for your region because of the relationship that we have. (Transcript)

The most controversial part of Trump’s tour came on Thursday when he was expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin but didn’t – apparently due to scheduling difficulties. (Putin later told the Russian media that functionaries will be ‘disciplined’ for the botch-up.) But what stood out was the Trump-Putin joint statement on Syria that was eventually issued on Friday, reflecting Trump’s intention to take Putin’s help in ending the war.

Trump is unwavering that it is in the US’ interests to engage with Putin. This is despite the civil war going on back home where critics are braying for his blood for being ‘soft’ on Russia. We get a glimpse of the classic Trump in his dogged persistence all through that the US and Russia ought to have a productive relationship and Russia’s help is necessary for solving regional and global issues. He rubbed it in in while speaking to the White House press party aboard Air Force One.

Indeed, Trump’s remarks have raised a furious storm in the US with Senator John McCain leading the pack of wolves. Read the transcript of Trump’s remarks on Russia here.

November 13, 2017 - Posted by | Economics | , , , , , , , ,

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