The bully or the deal maker – which Donald Trump will Australia get?
Donald Trump’s stunning victory has been a shock to Australia, and the region. It has thrilled some of Asia’s autocrats. But it is fuelling deep anxiety among other leaders in our part of the world, where a US military presence – taken for granted until now – has underpinned security for decades.
With outgoing leader Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia appearing ever more threadbare, the question Australia and Asia’s policymakers are asking is whether Trump can shift from isolationist and America-first rhetoric to securing opportunities for growth, trade and partnerships in the world’s fastest growing region.
Some are groping for a semblance of normalcy. Malcolm Turnbull says he had a “very warm” discussion with Trump and talks up their shared business background. The President-elect, he says, is committed to a “strong United States with enhanced military power”.
The outrageously erratic Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, jokes that he and Trump both like to swear. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, is said to be a golfing buddy of Trump’s.
Optimists noted that within two days of his election, Trump phoned the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, pledging to defend the country in which 28,000 US troops are based.
But other analysts warn Trump is as variable and unpredictable as the weather: sunshine now doesn’t mean an absence of storms later.
Leading strategist Professor Hugh White, a former deputy head of the Defence department, says he is unsurprised the government and many commentators have eagerly seized on Trump’s words since Wednesday to imagine that things may not be as bad as many fear.
But “talk is cheap” warns White. “The question is, does America defend South Korea when North Korea has the capacity to put a nuclear weapon on San Francisco, which could happen within a few years?”
The US, he says, faces an “immensely serious challenge” to its primacy in Asia from China, and “we can’t assume that the US is going to triumph in that contest and emerge as the uncontested dominant power again”.
How would Trump respond to that? There are two worrying possibilities, says White, because there are “two Trumps”.
The pugnacious bully could walk into a fight and take on China. Equally he could cut a deal that might serve US interests, leave China in a stronger position in Asia and sacrifice the interests of America’s allies.
“We want a middle point, where America stays engaged with Asia, but does so on the basis of an understanding, or accommodation with China,” White argues.
Dr Peter Dean, acting head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, is also wary of heads burrowing into sand over the looming risks to regional stability.
“Trump wants to be president and CEO of the US,” says Dean. “He is a deal maker. I think he will make a deal with Putin over Syria and Eastern Europe and probably allow Russia to carve out a sphere of influence; he could well do the same with China, trading away some of the security apparatus that we have come to know and love in Asia. That could work out very poorly for us and all the other US allies in the region.”
Other commentators are less pessimistic, but of the half-dozen analysts who spoke to Fairfax Media, all agreed on three things. That Australia would most likely have to lift its own defence spending; it would have to be very clear about what it was prepared to do – and not do – in the context of the ANZUS alliance; and that next year’s foreign policy white paper being drawn up by Julie Bishop will be a document of critical importance.
During his campaign Trump blamed China and Japan for all sorts of ills, threatening to abandon South Korea to the clutches of North Korea and declaring that the US was letting in “animals” from terrorist nations, among them the Philippines.
In the final presidential debate on October 19, Trump said: “As far as Japan and other countries go, we are being ripped off by everybody … we are defending other countries. We are spending a fortune on it.”
But in his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday, Trump vowed to “get along with all other nations willing to get along with us” and declared “we will deal fairly with everyone”.
This provided some comfort among policymakers that the 70-year-old billionaire showman would not rush to upend the US’s long-standing bilateral defence pacts with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia.
Having unashamedly bashed China during the campaign to win votes – accusing the communist giant of stealing millions of jobs, raping the US economy and being a currency manipulator – the President-elect has not yet given the Chinese leadership any clear indication on where he will take that relationship.
Indeed, Trump’s campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” is being echoed by China’s President Xi Jinping, who talks about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and who chose the very moment that Trump was making his victory speech to talk to China’s astronauts by satellite link, monopolising coverage on Chinese television.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has reached out to the President-elect, saying “we look forward to working with you closely to take India-US bilateral ties to a new height”.
North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un is among a cast of authoritarian Asian leaders who have expressed support for Trump, including Cambodia’s pugnacious one-time Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, the Philippines’ controversial strongman Duterte, Malaysia’s scandal-hit Najib and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a 2014 coup to overthrow a democratically elected government.
All have been miffed by US criticism of their nation’s human rights and/or corruption records, and they will be able to present Trump’s victory as tacit endorsement of the rise of nationalist strongmen.
Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving ruler, endorsed Trump even before Americans voted, saying “if Trump wins, the world can change … Trump does business, so Trump would not want war”.
Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch says it is clear that under Trump’s administration, the US will no longer speak out about human rights and other abuses in countries in Asia.
Najib, embarrassed by a US investigation into how hundreds of millions of dollars were allegedly embezzled into the US from a sovereign fund he set up, appeared jubilant at Trump’s win, declaring even before the count had ended that US voters want fewer “foreign interventions”.
And Duterte moved quickly to bury the hatchet with the US after Trump’s victory, declaring an end to his quarrelling with Washington, after calling Obama the “son of a whore” in October because the US criticised his crackdown on drugs leaving thousands Filipinos dead.
Yet Richard Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific, says America’s other allies in Asia (Japan chief among them) fear Trump doesn’t have the patience for long-term strategic engagement or enough understanding of the region outside of pure business.
“Donald Trump has sounded like … someone who believes that America’s treatment of the world order should be transactional,” Heydarian says.
“It’s not about America being the anchor of them, it’s what is there for us? There seems to be less concern about the international global order and more concern about what the US can immediately get out of these countries.”
Tommy Koh, a former Singapore ambassador to the US, hopes Trump will be more restrained as president than when he was on the campaign trail, citing similar fears when Ronald Reagan was elected. “There were a lot of fears in the world too [about Reagan]. But he governed on the centre and approached competent people in the Republican Party to help him in his cabinet,” Koh told the Nikkei Asian Review. Others, however, fear there is turbulence ahead.
The story The bully or the deal maker – which Donald Trump will Australia get? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.