United States President Donald Trump’s first year in office bares foreign policy shortcomings, particularly on Asia, where the US appears to be retreating against the backdrop of growing concern over rising China’s belligerent designs in the South China Sea. A businessman with little or no exposure to complex world affairs and geopolitical idiosyncrasies will, naturally, take time to understand and address serious foreign policy issues. President Trump’s foreign policy has so far been characterised by ad hocism and transactional relations with individual foreign leaders.
Almost immediately after assuming office, Trump’s first foreign-policy act was to announce the US withdrawal from the multilateral 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was painstakingly cobbled together by his predecessor Barack Obama who had conceived the TPP as the centrepiece of America’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia. Despite the TPP’s official demise, some of its proponents still hope that the US will make a surprise re-entry. During a recent panel discussion I attended at the Asia Society in New York, Wendy Cutler, former deputy US trade representative and a TPP negotiator, called the US withdrawal from the TPP a “very serious mistake”.
While the remaining 11 TPP members have, meanwhile, come together under Japan’s leadership to put that deal into effect without the US, Cutler warned that China is trying to fill the vacuum created by US withdrawal, citing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech in Davos (Switzerland) in 2017, portraying China as the leader of “inclusive globalisation” and as a “free trade country”.
Nevertheless, Trump shook the diplomatic establishment a month ago by saying something positive about the TPP in Davos. He suggested that if significant changes were made, the US might be open to TPP. Such words contrast sharply with the rhetoric of a man who once called the TPP agreement the “rape of the country” and the “worst deal ever”, and criticised the negotiators as the “most incompetent people on earth”.
Though Trump’s statement on joining the TPP was accompanied by caveats — Cutler called it an “opening” — the TPP is just one issue that reveals Trump’s penchant for following a zigzag course. Trump needs to demonstrate consistency, lest his words become meaningless, and harm America’s credibility.
Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state (Asia/Pacific) in the Obama administration, and Cutler’s co-panellist at the Asia Society discussion, pointed out that even after a year in office, many senior diplomatic posts, both in Washington and US missions abroad, remained vacant. While Trump has filled in ambassadorial posts in Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi, other ‘hugely important’ vacancies in Australia, South Korea, Singapore and elsewhere remain unfilled. Such neglect is untenable.
Then there was Trump’s State-of-the-Union address that many pundits hoped would provide clarity on his foreign policy. Alas, that was not the case. The continuing dichotomy between Trump’s isolationist and protectionist impulses, and the more internationalist worldview of his senior advisers, clouds his foreign policy course.
On the bright side, Trump spent nearly two weeks in November in Asia, visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. This was a welcome change for American diplomats, particularly those dealing with Asia, where it is widely feared that China will elbow the US out of its traditional position of regional leadership. The US administration needs to reassure Asians that despite Trump’s “America First” policy, old alliances and friendships do matter to the US.
Short messages on Twitter may serve well now and then to shake up both domestic and foreign audiences, but it is no ersatz for conducting diplomacy in “flesh and blood”; this applies, particularly, to messages impregnated with negative sentiments. An instance: Trump expressed admiration for the Chinese president, but, sometime later, did not hesitate to severely criticise China that does “nothing for us with North Korea, just talk”. Most Asian leaders do not respond to the president’s tweets and seem to conclude that his Twitter diplomacy is best ignored.
Again, Trump’s vision of a role for India in world affairs — particularly in Asia, where it is being groomed to become a counterweight to China — has not been clearly defined. Rex Tillerson, the phlegmatic US Secretary of State, who visited India late last October, has yet to clarify how the administration envisages India’s role in Asia, though there has been intense discussion recently about greater naval cooperation in the framework of what is called “the Quad”, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, with other “like-minded” Asian countries joining later. The US envisages a prime role for India in Asia, but has yet to provide the contours of such a role.
Trump’s foreign-policy scorecard may show flaws and shortcomings, but he will, hopefully, acquire greater sensitivity in statecraft. Increased interaction with Asian leaders can indeed be a learning process and help the US president forge a clearer foreign policy course that would reassure Asian allies and also preserve US interests in Asia.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist with extensive writing experience on foreign affairs, diplomacy global economics and international trade.