Don’t expect 2017 to bring much relief from the miseries that gathered in 2016. It’s not all about President-elect Donald Trump but, alas, he is the unpredictable joker in the pack. Remember all those Trumpkins reassuring us that Trump as president would not be the spiteful bozo he seemed to be while running for office? Judging from his cascade of pugnacious tweets, that upbeat scenario of him growing into the job just doesn’t seem to have panned out. He has surrounded himself with a cast of neoconservatives and misfits who seem ready to facilitate his transition to war president. He glories in being an iconoclast, but only because he is eager to irk everyone by doing things his way without considering the consequences.
By following this script, the sad truth is that he is highly likely to propel America careening back into the deep hole dug by former President George W. Bush, reviled by most of the world and an embarrassment to friendly nations.
The good news for Asia’s despots, kleptocrats, tin-pot tyrants and deranged demagogues is that Trump has lowered the bar on what constitutes acceptable leadership. His Cabinet looks like he’s selected it from central casting for a third-world movie ranting about American imperialism. For critics who charge that the U.S. government’s foreign policy is all about helping the military industrial complex get fat, Trump has delivered the jackpot. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned back in 1961 that U.S. democracy was at risk of being hijacked by this military industrial complex and now must be rolling in his grave at seeing such a lightweight brazenly making that happen.
Even before taking office, Trump went out of his way to provoke China by challenging its “one-China” policy that has enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. since enunciated in the 1972 Shanghai Communique. Exactly how does infuriating China over Taiwan promote U.S. interests? And why irresponsibly raise hopes in Taiwan that he will almost certainly betray while goading Beijing into punitive actions?
Trump’s swaggering iconoclasm is just thoughtless posturing that is going to boost tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea. This bravado isn’t making Japan feel more secure. With Trump conceding U.S. influence in Asia to China by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe is in damage control mode.
Trump talks like an isolationist, but he appears to be a closet interventionist as evident in his choice of neocon advisers. Abe will have to be skillful in navigating these uncharted waters because a Trump administration might drag Japan into a senseless conflict. My guess is bilateral relations won’t change much, but Trump defies predictions.
However, he will soon be discovering what his predecessors rued — just because a president wants things to change, that doesn’t necessarily make it happen. Executive prerogatives will confront institutional imperatives and that means his wings should be clipped in many areas. Hopefully the U.S. business community will pull Trump back from the protectionist abyss, explaining that capsizing the global economy and becoming the Herbert Hoover of the 21st century is not a legacy to aim for.
Japan’s greatest nightmare is a nuclear-armed North Korea and that is about to become a reality. Efforts to engage Pyongyang over the past two decades have proven fruitless and Tokyo has prioritized clarifying the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean spies since 2002. There are good humanitarian reasons for doing so, but this one-track diplomacy has been counterproductive and derailed engagement on the nuclear issue. Right now, Japan needs a breakthrough with North Korea, but Abe has been reduced to wringing his hands. He needs China’s cooperation on any initiative regarding Pyongyang, but has done little to cultivate a working partnership.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has undermined the U.S. and Japan’s South China Sea policy aimed at confronting and containing China by reaching out to Beijing and threatening to end his nation’s alliance with the United States. How far he can ride his anti-American populism and drug war remains to be seen, but Duterte has been adept at leveraging the Philippine’s geo-political position while lessening tensions with China. Cutting a deal that would allow the Chinese Navy access to Subic Bay in Olongapo, Philippines, would be a regional game changer, complementing its newly leased base in Sri Lanka. Averting such a scenario will require deft diplomacy from Tokyo and Washington.
Across the region, divisive religious and ethnic tensions will erupt into more violence, while secular democracies will become more beholden to religious leaders and their agendas. Myanmar’s recent military crackdown on ethnic Rohingya and communal violence targeting this Muslim community over the past few years is spilling over its borders, with an exodus of tens of thousands into Bangladesh. As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, this issue will dampen celebrations as it divides Myanmar from fellow member states Malaysia and Indonesia, where large Muslim populations are incensed by the anti-Muslim discrimination and mistreatment.
In both Indonesia and Malaysia, Islamic groups are influencing party politics by making religion a litmus test for support. In February, Jakarta will hold gubernatorial elections under the cloud of the incumbent’s blasphemy trial. He is an ethnic Chinese Christian being tried on dubious grounds largely because fundamentalist groups orchestrated massive street demonstrations demanding his prosecution. This cynical manipulation of the law to target a non-Muslim is a troubling sign. In recent years, across Indonesia in local level elections, candidates have had to embrace fundamentalism or confront a backlash organized by local religious leaders. This grass-roots transformation of the Indonesian political landscape will test long-standing commitment to secularism and tolerance.
In Malaysia, scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak is playing the Islamic card to boost his ruling coalition’s election prospects. He is dangling the possibility of further empowering the nation’s Shariah courts to woo Muslim voters, much to the dismay of non-Muslim coalition partners.
Adding to this gloomy scenario of growing communal violence is the high probability that terrorist violence will increase and, Trump’s denial notwithstanding, the certainty that global warming will batter a region that is extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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