NEW DELHI – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump ran an election campaign that challenged American diplomacy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Since his election triumph, Trump is rewriting the rules of presidency and signaling that his foreign policy approach will be unconventional.
Even before assuming office, Trump has moved away from U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy approach by staking out starkly different positions on several sensitive subjects, including China, Taiwan, Israel, terrorism and nuclear weapons. A Trump presidency may not bring seismic shifts in American policy but it is likely to lead to significant change in U.S. priorities, geopolitical focus and goals as well as in the tools Washington would be willing to employ to help achieve the desired objectives.
No country faces a bigger challenge from Trump’s ascension to power than China, which has been flexing its military and economic muscles more strongly than ever. After relishing the Obama administration’s unremitting obsequiousness toward it, Beijing must now brace up and face an assertive new national security and economic team in Washington that is unlikely to put up with its covert territorial expansion and trade manipulation.
In Trump’s foreign policy approach, at least four guiding themes are already apparent: Economic nationalism that views trade liberalization as the handmaiden of an internationalist foreign policy contributing to America’s relative decline; a focus on comprehensive domestic renewal, including by reining in the mounting U.S. budget deficit and reversing an interventionist, regime-change policy that dates back to Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s CIA-engineered 1953 overthrow and which more recently helped sow chaos in Libya; a determination to boost U.S. economic growth by eliminating critical roadblocks, including unfair competition from Chinese manufacturers; and waging a war against radical Islamic militancy before it metastasizes into a global jihadist movement.
U.S. foreign policy has long been tethered to two posts — an alliance with Arab monarchs, which has endured even as these cloistered royals bankroll Islamic militant groups and madrasas in other countries; and a fixation on Moscow despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, as if Russia remains the principal geopolitical foe whose strategic space must be crimped.
Trump has signaled a need to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy by shifting its geopolitical focus from Russia, a declining power whose economy is expected to contract by 0.8 percent in 2016, to the increasingly muscular and openly revisionist China. Unlike Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, China’s territorial revisionism, as illustrated in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, is creeping and incremental yet relentless.
Terrorism, meanwhile, has become “our new normal.” The threat of terrorist attacks indeed has become a fact of everyday life. While Obama eliminated Osama bin Laden through an intrepid U.S. commando raid deep inside Pakistan, he presided over the birth of the Islamic State, a more potent terrorist organization than al-Qaida ever was.
Trump cannot deliver credible or enduring counterterrorism results without disciplining Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other sheikhdoms that continue to blithely export Islamic radicalism. In an early action, he is likely to halt immigration from problematic Islamist countries extending from Pakistan to Libya.
Trump’s geopolitical focus on China and Islamic radicalism and his commitment to invest greater resources in the military indicate that, far from retreating from Asia and the Middle East, the U.S. under him is likely to play a sharper, more concentrated role. For example, the U.S. military could carry out more significant reconnaissance and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to help deter Chinese aggression.
To the countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies, the Obama administration’s reluctance to challenge Beijing signaled that they must tread with caution around Chinese concerns and interests. A wake-up call for them was Obama’s stunning silence on the 2012 Chinese capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Washington did nothing in response to the capture, despite its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.
That inaction helped spur China’s frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In late 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone covering territories it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Obama again hesitated, effectively condoning the action. And recently, his meek response to what Trump called “an unprecedented act” — China’s daring seizure of an underwater U.S. drone — helped advertise American weakness.
In the dying days of the Obama administration, an emboldened China is rushing more missiles to its man-made islands in the South China Sea, where, on Obama’s watch, it has built seven islands and militarized them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.
China’s defiant unilateralism thus far has been cost-free, but Beijing knows that its free ride is about to end, with Trump willing to call a spade a spade and adopt a tougher and less predictable line toward it. This is apparent from Trump’s suggestion, after taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, that a “one-China” policy is no holy cow for him. Trump’s economic nationalism also holds greater implications for China than probably for any other country.
By subsidizing exports and impeding imports, China has long waged an economic war against the other major economies. The Obama administration’s announcement last April that China had agreed to scrap export subsidies on some products, mainly agricultural items and textiles, drew skepticism in the markets because the deal did not cover major exports, including steel. It also left intact other forms of state support to the Chinese industry.
Trump is unlikely to give China a free pass on its trade manipulation. Trade is one area where Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that propelled him to victory. He is threatening to slap punitive tariffs on China for what he described during the campaign as “the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
That Trump may not be deterred by the specter of a trade war with China is apparent from some of his appointments, including of economist Peter Navarro, the author of books like “Death By China,” “The Coming China Wars,” and “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the Rest of the World.”
U.S.-China ties could be in for a rough patch for another reason: Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Obama did not. Obama’s failure to provide strategic heft left his Asia pivot unhinged.
To be sure, Trump is likely to face resistance to recalibrating U.S. policy from two powerful lobbies in Washington — a large tribe of “panda huggers,” and the old establishment figures who spent their formative years during the Cold War obsessing with the Soviet threat and who now see Russian President Vladimir Putin as the epitome of evil. Trump’s task of revamping U.S. strategy is made more onerous by a mainstream media that remains hostile to him despite its epic failure to anticipate the election outcome, largely due to its concerted bet on a wholly different result.
Still, a determined Trump is likely to reorient U.S. foreign policy in potentially momentous ways.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author and a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times.
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