Trump as US President will not have it easy dealing with China

Brahma Chellaney
Brahma ChellaneyNov 24, 2016 | 09:57

Trump as US President will not have it easy dealing with China

US President Barack Obama's strategic "pivot" toward Asia attracted a lot of international attention but did little to tame China's muscular approach to territorial, maritime and trade disputes.

Indeed, with the United States focused on the Islamic world, Obama's much-touted pivot got lost somewhere in the arc between Iraq and Libya.

Will President-elect Donald Trump's approach to Asia be different?



Concern that Trump could undo Obama's pivot to Asia by exhibiting an isolationist streak ignores the fact that the pivot has remained more rhetorical than real.

Even as Obama prepares to leave office, the pivot has not acquired any concrete strategic content.

If anything, the coining of a catchy term, pivot, helped obscure the key challenge the US confronts to remain the principal security anchor in Asia - a relentless push by a revisionist China to expand its frontiers and sphere of influence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Trump could face an early test of will from China. With Obama having increasingly ceded ground to China in Asia during his tenure, Beijing feels emboldened, as attested by its incremental expansionism in the South China Sea and its dual Silk Road projects under the "One Belt, One Road" banner.

Indeed, boosting naval prowess and projecting power far from its shores are at the centre of China's ambition to fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia.

Boasting one of the world's fastest-growing undersea fleets, China this month announced that its first aircraft carrier is ready for combat. Its revanchist moves will inevitably test the new US administration's limits.

Trump, in keeping with his "tough guy" image, could permit the US navy and air force to initiate more aggressive reconnaissance and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.


He could also invite China's wrath by getting Japan to join US air and sea patrols in the South China Sea.

Trump is also expected to be more assertive diplomatically than Obama, who refused to speak up even when China occupied the Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

The 2012 takeover occurred despite a US-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area.

Yet the US did nothing in response to the capture, in spite of its mutual-defence treaty with the Philippines. That inaction spurred China's frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

In late 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone covering territories that it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Obama again hesitated. In effect, the US condoned China's ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) establishment.


Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's much-flayed action in cutting his own deal with China should be seen against this background. The deal, however, is likely to hold only until the next major Chinese incursion.

The paradox is that the more assertive China has become in pressing its territorial and maritime claims - from the East China Sea to the Himalayas - the more reluctant the Obama administration has been to take sides in Asia's territorial disputes, although they centre on Beijing's efforts to change the status quo with America's strategic allies or partners.


No less significant is the fact that Obama failed to provide strategic heft to his pivot to Asia.

Even the modest measure to permanently rotate up to 2,500 US Marines through Darwin, Australia, is yet to be fully implemented.

To countries bearing the brunt of China's recidivist policies, this lack of clarity has not only raised doubts about the US commitment, but also left them effectively at the mercy of a regional predator.

That, in turn, has forced several of them to be more mindful of Chinese concerns and interests.


Far from retreating from Asia, the US under Trump is likely to bolster alliances and partnerships with states around China's periphery.

His administration may even support constitutional and national security reforms in Japan, on the assumption that a Japan that does more for its own defence will help to forestall the emergence of a destabilising power imbalance in East Asia - with far-reaching benefits for Asia and the rest of the world.

Such support will also fit well with Trump's top priority to arrest the erosion in America's relative power through comprehensive domestic renewal, including reining in the mounting US budget deficit.

Trump's election, however, has dimmed prospects of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership entering into force.

Trade is one area where Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue collar constituency that helped to propel him to victory.

At a time when the very future of the Asian order looks uncertain, Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Obama didn't.

But today no single power, not even the US, can shape developments on its own in Asia, including ensuring a rules-based order.

His administration will have to work closely with like-minded states - from Japan and Australia to India and Vietnam - to build a stable balance of power in Asia.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: November 25, 2016 | 11:25
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