Less than three weeks into the Trump era, something perverse is dawning on Asian leaders. Rather an unmitigated disaster for the region, the new U.S. leader may be a political godsend.
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is free to see his testy chat with U.S. President Donald Trump as an affront to one of the developed world’s tightest alliances. Or Turnbull could consider how the spat, if properly exploited, could boost his flagging support rate. Trump’s bizarre suggestion that Down Under, as part of a refugee deal, might export the “next Boston bomber” gives Turnbull’s party (with which Turnbull isn’t very popular) a rallying cry and an opportunity to bolster Australia’s soft power as America’s dims. Increased popularity at home may give Turnbull greater confidence and political capital to accelerate reforms to increase competitiveness, tweak taxes and reduce Australia’s overreliance on China.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak could lash out at Trump’s travel ban on behalf of one of the most progressive Muslim-majority nations. Instead, he should revel in the kleptocracy billionaire Trump and his kids appear to be building. Before long, Najib can push back at overseas investigators scrutinizing 1Malaysia Development Bhd and say “Uuuhhh, what about Trump Inc. turning the White House into a board room.” The foreign media gives Najibistan’s corruption and fake news a hard time, and rightfully so. Trumpistan, anyone?
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who oversees the biggest Muslim population, also could be forgiven for seething over U.S. policies. Instead, he should play up three ways Trump is making his nation great again. First, Indonesia’s electoral system — the person with the most votes wins, period! — looks state of the art compared to America’s electoral-college chaos. Two, Indonesia’s domestic-driven economy is more immune from protectionist shocks than most emerging nation peers. Three, most of what it does export is commodities, from energy to rubber, that stand to benefit from any Trump or Chinese stimulus.
Chinese President Xi Jinping could take umbrage at the internet-troll-in-chief threatening trade wars and slamming China’s military buildup. State mouthpiece Xinhua warns this “obsession with ‘Twitter foreign policy’ is undesirable.” Instead, Xi should thank his lucky stars that Trump’s America is withdrawing from a global system China aims to remake. Trump denying climate change makes China — China! — a global leader in sustainability. Even better, U.S.-style democracy may be a tougher sell than ever for Xi’s 1.3 billion people.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is losing sleep over Trump hinting that Tokyo pay more protection money and Japan’s currency is too weak. Yet Trump’s bravado gives Abe carte blanche to achieve his two main goals: amending the pacifist Constitution and creating Japan’s own military industrial complex. Nothing irks nationalists more than a U.S.-written constitution that bars Tokyo from having conventional armed forces. Trump’s tough talk toward China, Iran and North Korea could change public opinion in Abe’s direction. That dovetails with plans to export weapons to the U.S. and elsewhere, creating new jobs and growth to defeat deflation.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could be excused for sensing an existential crisis on the horizon — and stepping up deterrence. In a tweet about North Korea perfecting missiles capable of reaching America, Trump declared “it won’t happen!” Instead, Kim could enjoy Trump topping him on lists of world’s most erratic — and possibly feared — leader. Meanwhile, Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking defector, tells CNN that Kim sees “a good opportunity for him to open a kind of compromise with the new American administration.” Perhaps Kim could make it happen by flattering Trump, Vladimir Putin-style.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte slammed the U.S. last week for making a “permanent” arms depot of his nation. He also refuses to name a U.S. ambassador. Instead, Duterte could gain traction with a White House that needs his airfields and naval bases more than ever as China occupies the South China Sea. He could play Trump off Xi, who also is making a big play for Manila’s favor. How about a free-trade deal, Mr. President? More U.S. aid? Or more visas so Filipinos can work in America and send wages back home? And besides, Duterte now has a ready response to anyone accusing him of authoritarian tendencies: Have you seen Washington lately?
In a January column, I explored how Trump’s desire to shake up the status quo could prod Asia’s economies to lift their game, reform-wise. He also may be an unwitting boon for New Zealand’s global appeal, a place Trump supporting billionaire Peter Thiel views as heaven on earth (he’s become a citizen). Sleepy Singapore’s obsession with predictability, order and a docile media now seems less like a punchline than an aspiration. Finally, Trump killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a regional catalyst. Just as Washington’s bluster may strengthen Germany’s Angela Merkel and bring Europe together again, countering Trumpism may get Asian leaders on the same page for the first time in decades. Nothing “sad!” about that.
Based in Tokyo, William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com