THE day is finally here. Nineteen months, and what seems like a lifetime to many of us, have passed since Trump announced his run for the presidency and we’re finally here at inauguration day.
Through the ups and downs, the scandals, the mishaps, the world has been transfixed to this most unlikely of presidential candidates. And now, as he was sworn in just this morning, the world takes a collective deep breath in anticipation of what the next four years could hold.
No one is entirely sure what promises he will keep or what path a Trump presidency will take us down, but there’s one thing for sure – this morning, Asia woke up to a brave new world of possibility and uncertainty.
At the time of writing, the Asian markets were going strong with no sign of wavering ahead of the inauguration, finishing mostly higher on Wednesday.
There has been a mixed bag of responses to Trump’s election victory throughout Asia. Some leaders have bragged of their affiliation with Trump, others expressed their concerns. Some have tried to forge early ties with the new president, and others to reassert their position in his vision of Asia.
While there remains many question marks on Trump’s future approach to the region, it looks like the region is set for a shakeup of decades-old policies that have thus far acted in maintaining stability in the region.
One almost certain aspect of his presidency, for which he has already been laying the ground work, is a renegotiation of ties with China. Trump’s strategy in this area will likely affect the entire region, if not the world.
A rocky relationship between the two looks almost certain over the coming 12 months. With mounting provocations from Trump over the last few months, the tit-for-tat battle between the world’s two largest economies has the potential to reach boiling point.
His questioning and flouting of the one-China policy through his connections with Taiwan have already provoked military shows of strength by China in the Taiwan strait. And these provocations look set to continue as a delegation of Taiwanese diplomats attended the inauguration on Friday, despite protestations from Beijing.
Rex Tillerson, the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state, has also made it clear that the U.S. would be taking a more aggressive stance against Beijing.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson told senators at his confirmation hearing last week.
The diplomatic balance with China is a delicate one that has been in place since the post-Nixon era. If Tillerson’s words are turned to action it could violate international law, starting a confrontation that many fear could easily spin out of control and set both powers on a collision course for disaster.
Another dead cert is the scrapping of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP was the product of seven years of work under President Obama, and is aimed at making trade easier among Pacific Rim countries – except China, which didn’t sign.
In vowing to kill the TPP trade pact on his first day in office, the President-elect promised instead that “the United States would negotiate fair and bilaterally beneficial trade deals that will bring jobs back to American shores.”
That’s unlikely to provide much comfort to states like Vietnam, for which the trade deal would have meant a predicted 11 percent jump of its gross domestic product by 2025, as well as closer relations with Washington.
By scrapping the TPP, Trump also risks handing the dominant trading position to China.
The failure of the trade agreement along with Trump’s isolationist and trade protectionism rhetoric is likely to drive countries in the region away from the U.S. and into the arms of Beijing. The world’s second largest economy would be provided more space to shape the rules in the region through alternative bilateral and regional trade pacts.
China has already been making headway in reassuring the world that they are open for business with Xi’s talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos just this week and his pledges in the past to ensure his country’s “economic openness”.
It’s a clear sign that in the face of the rising American critique of free trade, China hopes to take on the global trade leadership mantle.
Many nations that were previously allied to the U.S. are already showing signs of warming relations with Beijing, with the Philippines, Malaysia and potentially Thailand, turning away from the U.S. following clashes with the Obama administration.
“We will have to wait and see how sophisticated (Trump’s) policy is towards Southeast Asia, but the risk is that he could do significant damage … and accelerate the process in which ASEAN states maybe say their interests are better served by aligning with China,” Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The Australian.
But despite enjoying the prospect of trade with China, according to an Asian Foundation report, many Asian nations don’t want to see a full retreat from America.
With Japan in the midst of re-militarisation, North Korea developing nuclear arsenal, the ongoing South China Sea debate and growing friction between China and Taiwan, among other ongoing realities, most Asian nations want the United States to continue its long-standing, strategic balancing role to maintain stability.
What Trump’s approach will be is yet to be seen, but one thing’s for sure; the days of Obama’s strategic and diplomatic pivot to Asia are over. Trump’s more foolhardy approach to the region could provoke a pivot of an entirely different nature. One in which the U.S. sees its allies turn away from them and look to Beijing, completely realigning the diplomatic landscape not only in the Asia Pacific, but the world.