Donald Trump Rattles the Asian Order

Rodrigo Duterte addresses the Filipino community in Vietnam. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Why the Philippines shouldn't be Trump's next big gamble.

“To what extent does historical change depend on the actions of a handful of unusual individuals … as opposed to large-scale, long-term, impersonal forces?” Princeton University professor David Bell aptly asked in a timely essay, which is relevant to understanding seismic changes in international politics. In recent months, two key figures have shaken up the geopolitical landscape in Asia. First came the Philippines’ tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to radically recast his country’s foreign policy in favor of greater independence from America and diplomatic engagement with China. In a radical departure from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino Jr., he effectively tossed aside the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case against China in the South China Sea. In pursuit of a more “independent” foreign policy, he also progressively downgraded the Southeast Asian country’s military cooperation with the United States and reduced American naval access to Philippine bases.

When Washington, DC was perturbed by human-rights concerns and began to criticize Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs, Duterte made the unprecedented move of lashing back at top American officials, including President Barack Obama. He even went so far as to threaten a total severance of bilateral relations with his country’s sole treaty ally. Meanwhile, the Duterte administration doubled down on developing military cooperation with China and Russia, both of which had offered advanced weaponry for the Philippine National Police as well as the armed forces of the Philippines. Almost singlehandedly, Duterte undermined the Obama administration’s ability to mobilize regional support against China, as other South China Sea claimant states also began to lurch into Beijing’s embrace.

Shortly after Duterte’s high-profile trip to Beijing, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak embarked on a similar journey. He was also offered large-scale investment deals as well as Chinese naval hardware. As for Vietnam, China’s fiercest competitor in the South China Sea, it began to tone down its criticism of Beijing’s activities in contested waters and double down on its longstanding party-to-party ties and existing channels of communication. The rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations kept effectively mum on China’s rapidly expanding strategic footprint in adjacent waters, refusing to even mention the Philippines’ arbitration case, which saw the nullification of the bulk of Chinese “historic rights” claims in the South China Sea.

The advent of the Donald Trump administration in America, however, represents another major shock to the Asian order—albeit on a far larger and more consequential scale. Undoubtedly, the new American leadership represents both opportunities and challenges for the region. Notwithstanding the merits of an American foreign policy that is sensitive to domestic economic exigencies, the new American government will have to remain engaged, in both economic and geostrategic terms. After all, Asia is the center of global economic gravity and hosts Asia’s new battlefields.

The New Abnormal

President Trump’s neo-isolationist and protectionist posturing, particularly his decision to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement shortly after entering office, not only puts into question America’s commitment to the principles of free trade in the region, but has also raised the specter of trade wars among the world’s biggest economies. More recently, the American president has threatened to impose a whopping 35 percent tariff on trading nations accused of shortchanging the United States.