Trumping the Asia-Pacific

Adam Coenraads – Asia-Pacific Correspondent

The Brief:

  • Donald Trump has promised to over-haul the United States’ foreign and defence policy.
  • The U.S.’ allies and trade-partners in the Pacific are likely to see sharp changes to their Free-Trade Deals.
  • According to Donald Trump’s policies, America’s presence in the Pacific is likely to be drawn down and its military alliances are in danger.
  • Uncertainty is growing on key flash-points areas such as the South China Sea.


 Unpicking a demagogue

What seemed unthinkable has happened, Donald J. Trump will be the next President of the United States. Trump’s election finished off what was a completely abnormal campaign season, with levels partisan politics and vitriol so far unseen in American politics.

By the end, the public had become numb to words like ‘unthinkable’, ‘bombshell’, and ‘campaign ending’. Mr. Trump’s objectionable campaign earned him little sympathy among the media, with only five newspapers fully endorsing him as a presidential candidate, including the likes of the newspaper of the Klu Klux Klan.

Almost every poll pointed to Clinton winning the electoral college vote, and for many it was not a question of if, but rather how much.

Pundits, experts, the media and political analysts were well and truly wrong. Donald Trump capitalised on a middle-class that has been left behind by the American economy’s recovery.

But what does this mean for the rest of the world? Let’s break down how Mr. Trump’s policies are forecast to effect one key area in particular – the Asia-Pacific.

Democratic Candidate and U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton concedes defeat to Donald Trump.

The office of the President is surprisingly constrained in what it can do domestically. President Obama had to fight tooth and nail with a Republican controlled Congress in order to pass the Affordable Care Act, in the end he had to rely upon a slew of Executive Orders to enact a piece of legislation much less comprehensive than the one he imagined.

Where the President can wield the most power though is through America’s foreign policy.

Nowhere will these changes be felt more than in the Asia-Pacific – where US$2.9 trillion in trade with APEC countries occurred in 2013 alone, and where Mr. Trump has promised sweeping re-negotiations of the free-trade deals that have re-shaped the world’s most populous region.

The U.S. stands at a cross-roads. It’s defence and foreign policy now stands likely to see a fundamental shift in focus across the globe.

 International Relations – Mafia-style

The most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s campaign has been his attitude towards the United States military presence globally. Donald Trump has repeatedly stated throughout his campaign that U.S. was being “ripped off” by its allies were not paying their fair share.

His solution has been to push for those allies to now pay for the presence of U.S. troops. This had fed troubled rhetoric amongst its allies that this reflects a so-called “Mafia” style approach to foreign policy – pay us more or we’ll stop protecting you.

The trouble then comes for precarious countries such as Taiwan and small Pacific nations facing down the militaristic expansion of China in particular.

Traditionally, American alliances have allowed states in tense regions to avoid spending massive amounts of money in a debilitating arms race with their neighbours. By threatening to revoke this protection, not only will developing states shift their budgets to likely accommodate either greater demands from the U.S., or to rapidly grow their own military, but this will result in greater instability as states warily eye their neighbours stash of military hardware.


Crumbling Alliances

Middle powers such as Australia and Japan are particularly at risk.

In specific policy areas such as the hosting of U.S. Marines in the Northern Territory. Australia is now faced with the question of whether the cost of a military alliance with America will continue to provide the stability which has allowed its economy to blossom in relative security.

Under the US-Australia military alliance, ANZUS (1952), it is commonly accepted that there is a compulsion to meet a “common danger” in the event of an attack on any of the signatories mainland, island territories, or shipping – military or commercial. This last category is most relevant to the state of international relations today, particularly surrounding the disputes of the South China Sea.

Trump has repeatedly indicated that his temperament is unlikely to be well suited to high intensity situations. As Commander-in-Chief of America’s military, Trump will undermine the fragments of predictability that have prevented the South China Sea from moving from tinderbox to raging bush-fire.

The dates and nature of American Freedom of Navigation Operations have typically been broadcast well in advance to Chinese Officials to avoid any such misunderstanding between vessels that may lead to the outbreak of a crisis. With such a demonstrated failure to keep his cool, Trump could very well present an opportunity where American ships conflict with Chinese ships in the region. This is when Article V of the ANZUS treaty stops looking so comforting.

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Economic uncertainty

To examine how President Trump’s agenda will affect the region at large, we need only examine their effect on previously secure middle-powers like Australia.

Trump will not only shake the country’s geopolitical future; his rhetoric threatens to jeopardise the economy. In 2014, two-way trade between Australia and America was at around $60 billion, to the tune of a $9 billion surplus. Foreign direct investment from the U.S. is immense, at $173 billion. The U.S. even beats out China in owning agricultural land within the country, and so the new uncertainties are presenting profound shifts to the economy.

Trump has shown that he has no time for Free Trade Agreements that America has signed, citing NAFTA, the North American agreement, as one such example that he will work to scrap or “renegotiate”.

To be fair to Trump, Hillary also promised to review America’s Trade agreements. However, she has not shown the sheer outward hostility towards trade deals as Trump has repeatedly done. What’s more, the continued healthy functioning of the American economy is vital – not just for Australia’s sake, but for the world.

Early analysis shows that Trump’s tax plans are likely to add $5.3 trillion dollars in debt over the next decade. This would put America’s total debt as a percentage of GDP to 105% – a totally unsustainable figure. When the American economy slows down, so does the rest of the world. This is an issue that is likely to be compounded by Trump’s insistence that America eliminate its trade deficit –with Australia as a net exporter to America, this will certainly affect us.

The new first family greets supporters in New York after their election victory.

The election of a strongman

There is another issue which is likely to be more corrosive in the long-term. The election of a Nationalist leader, who appeals to a lowest common denominator with simplistic rhetoric.

Trump has not minced his words during his campaign. He has spoken against immigrants both legal and illegal, he has threatened to jail his political opponent, he has threatened to pursue media outlets through the courts, and has wantonly cast apprehensions over the democratic system.

Asia-Pacific countries may weather the storm of military and fiscal uncertainty, but the erosion of democratic values in the Land of the Free, leader of the Liberal Democratic order is truly unnerving. Trump’s appeal to a racist, sexist, and bigoted base has empowered many of the same ilk across the region to raise their voices.

During an election day party at the University of Sydney, attendees allegedly chanted “grab her by the pussy” when Trump began to lead – a reference to the 2005 Access Hollywood tape scandal that rocked the Trump campaign. Pauline Hanson, leader of the One Nation Party who are explicitly anti-immigration, has already congratulated Trump on his win and said via twitter that her “door will always be open”. While Trump has won by democratic means, every indicator is that he will not show any respect for the office.


A democratic system is only as safe as the institutions that protect it.

Right now, the U.S. – and indeed the world – waits with baited breath to see if and what sort of maelstrom will be unleashed.

The answer to this is that democratic institutions around the world need to look within to ensure that they are safe and can prevent the rise of a similar Nationalist strongman to the highest office in the land.

Political participation is key to ensuring the continued functioning of a democracy, whereas malaise leads to disinterest and rage against the system. The greatest plea that is emerging from America now is to ensure that we engage with and understand our political system and continue to interact with it. Our politicians are only as answerable to the electorate as we allow them to be. Don’t let America’s lesson to the world be in vain.

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