Should Asian leaders be worried about Trump? Hell yes. The world managed to survive the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, but the alarming prospect of a Trump presidency recently prompted 50 senior Republican national security officials, including former aides and Cabinet members, to sign a letter declaring he “would be the most reckless president in American history.” Trumpkins like it when they make the Republican establishment uncomfortable, but the world really doesn’t need more of their jingoism, racism and isolationism.
What would a Trump presidency be like? Hopefully not a financial Armageddon, but markets are spooked by the prospects of trade wars — his election is expected to spark a sell-off in Asian bourses. The anticipated cratering of the U.S. economy, stoked by Trump’s “America First” protectionism — the economic equivalent of Ebola — will batter the global economy.
Trump thinks he is a brilliant negotiator but he is out of his depth. In a September article for The New Yorker, journalist Evan Osnos recalls Trump offering advice to a U.S. nuclear-arms negotiator on how to cut a “terrific” deal with the Soviets: “Trump told him to arrive late, stand over the Soviet negotiator, stick his finger in his chest, and say, ‘F—- you!’ “
He might try a slightly less vulgar approach with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young dictator, who Trump seems to admire. Given the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, one hopes Trump can cut a deal, making one of his “incredible” offers: “Hey Kim, I’m gonna make you the greatest Great Leader ever, really. I can build you terrific casinos, hotels — the whole shebang — and put this place on the map. You won’t need your nukes, everyone will want a piece of the action. Don’t sweat the debt. I’ll show you how to scam the system. And I got your back with the Chinese — trust me, I know how to deal with scumbags.”
And how would Trump deal with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? President Barack Obama kept nudging Abe on history issues, such as “comfort women,” so what does Abe have to lose with Trump?
Trump has encouraged Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Some conservatives in both nations might agree, but such a gambit enjoys very little public support in either country. Coupled with the leak revealing that the Obama administration was reconsidering its first-strike doctrine, the strategic environment has become uncertain and fluid. By raising the nuclear-weapons option, Trump was suggesting that Japan needs to look out for itself. He has also implied, incorrectly, that the U.S.-Japan alliance is a one-way street: “If Japan gets attacked, we have to immediately go to their aid,” Trump said, and “if we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us.” His assertion that Japan is free-riding is another example of his sketchy command over facts. The 2015 U.S.-Japan defense guidelines do commit Japan to defending the U.S., and Japan pays billions — yes, billions! — for hosting U.S. military bases, highlighting how poorly informed Trump is and the weakness of his advisory team.
Does no one on Trump’s team know about the Abe Doctrine? Apparently his Asia team is a bunch of numbskulls — it seems informed advisers are working elsewhere; no one wants to be associated with the certain train wreck of a Trump presidency. When Trump was asked to name the person he relies on most for foreign policy advice, he replied, “I’m speaking with myself, No. 1, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
But even if Trump has his weak points, he and Abe share a certain fascination with Russia’s strongman, President Vladimir Putin. Abe has made no secret of his desire to cut a deal on the disputed Northern Territories despite the improbability of getting what he wants. He has courted Putin, even at the risk of U.S. ire: He got the cold shoulder from Obama at the G-20 in China and no face time on a recent America visit to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
Trump is fine with Putin propping up Assad and letting the Russians deal with the Islamic State group. He seeks an improved relationship with Russia, meaning he would drop sanctions and forget all the fuss over Crimea and the Ukraine. Perhaps he imagines that he can better contain China by nurturing an entente cordiale with Moscow and, on that score, Abe could play a go-between role since he has met Putin more than any other world leader. To bolster cooperation between the U.S., Russia and Japan, Trump might suggest that Putin make concessions on the Northern Territories, perhaps ceding two of the islands, as proposed 60 years ago. He would also remind Putin of the geostrategic reality that Russia’s Far East is vulnerable to Chinese ambitions.
The Asian leader who should be most worried about a Trump presidency is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, another sociopath, because Trump will probably see right though him and call his bluff.
“You want us outta the Philippines? Fine — sayonara. Try your cowboy crap with the Chinese. Make my day! People like you couldn’t even get a job shining shoes at one of my hotels.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, of course, is laughing up his sleeve as he sees Trump doing Beijing’s bidding by rolling back the U.S. network of alliances and conceding the advantage to China as he retreats from Asia. Chinese look at Trump as a naive amateur: heavy on bluster, short on smarts and easily managed.
In “The Art of War,” China’s sage military strategist Sun Tzu asserts that “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This is exactly what Trump is helping China accomplish through his cavalier regard for allies and irrational belief in unreasonable goals.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.