WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s “peace through strength” could mean more U.S. military power in Asia, reassuring allies about America’s resolve to counter China. That is, if they’re still looking to Washington for reassurance.
Trump called his speedy withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership a victory for American workers hurt by multilateral trade pacts. But his reversal of years of U.S.-led efforts may mean the loss of Asian nations’ trust and support in confronting an increasingly assertive Beijing after many of them, under Washington’s pressure, barreled through similar domestic concerns over jobs and competition.
And a weakened partnership with East Asia’s key commercial powers could have wide-ranging consequences for Americans, beyond them missing out on the trade pact’s potential for lower prices and additional jobs.
“It’s not as if we can send a bunch of ships and be protectionist at the same time,” said Sheila Smith, an expert on Japan at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Asians don’t see economics and military power as separate, she said, and flexing U.S. muscles with Navy boats and other assets while retrenching on free trade “just won’t translate into American influence.”
The 12-nation trade agreement was the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s outreach to Asia, cutting tariffs and setting new environmental and labor standards in countries representing about 40 percent of the global economy. While Trump said he wants to pursue bilateral trade deals instead, he may find U.S. credibility significantly dented after pulling out of a deal that took years to negotiate.
“Losing the United States from the TPP is a big loss, there is no question about that,” Australian Prime Minister Turnbull told reporters, trying to salvage the deal without Washington. “But we are not about to walk away from our commitment to Australian jobs.”
On bilateral deals replacing TPP, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English said, “there’s a pretty low chance of that happening in a form that we’d find satisfactory.”
Governments’ calculus would be different in a one-on-one negotiation. Japan, for example, may have less interest in opening up its agriculture and automobile sectors to American competition. Vietnam may balk at demands to allow independent trade unions. And instead of new deals that better advantage American workers, as Trump has vowed, the result could be a regional shift to an alternative, Chinese-backed trade pact promising more access to the world’s biggest consumer market.
“Every country that went through the process of TPP had to do politically difficult things at home,” said Vikram Singh at the Center for American Progress.
Trump’s withdrawal “shows he cares not a whit about what counterparts in the Asia-Pacific have done to push forward with what was a top U.S. political priority,” added Singh, a former Obama administration official.
For Asia, the U.S. turn inward is not without irony.
For decades, Washington was the prime purveyor of free markets, pressuring U.S. friends and foes alike to set aside regional rivalries and ideological incompatibilities for the mutual benefit of enhanced economic integration. This vision guided Democratic and Republican administrations, helping spur Japan’s post-World War II redevelopment, the high growth rates of liberalized economies like Singapore and South Korea, and communist China’s eventual absorption into the world capitalist order.
Under Obama and President George W. Bush, his predecessor, the American goal for Asia shifted somewhat to creating a fairer trading system that regulated China and didn’t let it write the rules for global commerce.
But Trump and his top aides have emphasized military containment, with plans to increase the Navy by more than 20 percent and curbing China’s dominance of resource-rich maritime areas also claimed by neighbors.
Walter Lohman, director of Asian studies at the conservative-oriented Heritage Foundation, said the U.S. must be a “full-spectrum power.”
“It’s great he wants to rebuild the U.S. military and get us up to 350 ships, but we have got to be there in other ways too — economically and diplomatically,” Lohman said.
Details of Trump’s policy in Asia are unclear beyond the desire to take a tougher stand on China, which enjoys a large trade surplus with the U.S. and has increasingly militarized its hold over parts of the disputed South China Sea. On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “We are going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
Trump has tried to galvanize Asian allies. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was Trump’s first post-election meeting with a foreign leader. On Tuesday, Trump spoke by phone with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shares concerns about China, and invited him to visit the United States later this year.
As much as they need Trump, he needs them as well.
“If the administration tries to develop a strategy for pushing back against China,” said Michael Green, a former senior Asia adviser to George W. Bush, “they’re going to find that they have no strategy without allies.”
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