Trump’s triumph threatens Asia
President-elect brings challenging times to the East
Text by Kevin Rafferty
Text by Kevin Rafferty
If Trump fulfils his campaign promises, it threatens to be a tough time for Asia. Critics claim that his limited grasp of foreign policy makes him a dangerous isolationist. He threatened to impose 45% tariffs on Chinese goods; “to bomb the shit out of” ISIS and steal the oil. He accused Japan and South Korea of getting a free ride out of US military protection; and at one point suggested that Tokyo and Seoul might protect themselves with their own nuclear weapons.
Trump surrogates say that Japan should not immediately hunt for the recipe for making nuclear weapons, because President Trump will be more statesmanlike and will uphold America’s position as leader of the free world.
In terms of popular support, Trump is a loser, whose glass is only 26.5% full. Just 61.9 million people voted for him out of the 231 million eligible voters. Clinton indeed got 2 million more votes than Trump, 64 million.
The way the US system works, Trump grabbed the prizes, taking 306 votes in the electoral college against Clinton’s 232. His personal presidential victory turned into a triumph when the Republican party kept control of the senate and the house of representatives. The Republican senate majority also allows Trump to appoint a new supreme court justice, tipping the scales of the highest court to a conservative majority.
In spite of Trump’s victory, America is dangerously split. Clinton convincingly took both coasts, while vast swathes of middle America went to Trump, albeit narrowly. Cities and urban areas voted for Clinton, and rural areas heavily for Trump. Millennials were for Clinton, but could not outnumber Trump’s support from the over-40s. Educated people went for Clinton. Black and Latino minorities supported Clinton, but more lukewarmly than those who voted for Barack Obama.
Trump owed his victory to blue-collar white Americans who believe they lost their jobs to globalisation and to waitress moms struggling along without a college education, whose lives and lifestyles are far distant from billionaire businessman Trump.
Some responsible commentators claim Trump will throw away his brash campaign cap and put on a sober presidential hat. Was his campaign just a clever business wheeze to seize the headlines and get elected? Will now a new Trump be unwrapped — soft and cuddly, statesmanlike — and America go back to being the home of the brave and the land of the free?
Supporters assert that a reformed President Trump will bring go-getting business leadership to the Oval Office. But can Trump make the transition from businessman who could rant and rage and use his trademark slogan, “You’re fired”, at his own command, to America’s chief public official and prisoner of other people’s agendas in a highly complex kaleidoscopic world of which he has little knowledge and less control than he thinks?
For all Trump’s promises, lamented lost jobs in coal mining, steel and old manufacturing will not come back unless middle Americans become more competitive and productive to take on a globalising world — or shut themselves off from the world. Imposing tariffs on cheap Chinese goods, repealing the North American Free Trade Agreement, throwing away the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, abrogating the Paris climate agreement, and kicking out 11 million undocumented immigrants would be cheap shots, with expensive, suffocating consequences for the world and, ultimately, for America itself.
The real danger for Japan and Asia is that Trumpenomics gets bogged down in its own contradictions, and Trump throws the blame on others. Tariffs on China, which could reduce its GDP by 4%, or squeezes on Japan or South Korea to pay more to host the US military would have potentially explosive economic and political consequences that would spread through Asia and around the globe.
Japan would be trapped, unable to trust its old ally, and fearing the rise of China, which is already collecting friends for its own trade regime in opposition to the Obama-led TPP. Toru Hashimoto, former mayor of Osaka, tweeted that Trump’s victory should impel Japan towards “self-reliance”; but self-reliance would be costly and would probably lead to nuclear weapons, however — rightly — nervous Japanese are about nuclear devastation.
European leaders sent Trump congratulatory messages; but only the far right, like Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK, was enthusiastic — evidence of the globalisation of the anti-globalisation parties. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel told the president-elect: “Germany and America are tied by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and human dignity, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation on the basis of these values.”
She has reason to be anxious. Europe is challenged internally and externally: internally, by Brexit, the rise of populist nationalism and governments on the fringes pursuing illiberal policies; externally, by the gun-slinging shadow of Russia’s Vladimir Putin trying to create an extended empire in spite of his constrained domestic economy.
Trump’s admiration for Putin and his criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alarm Europeans, just as his cheap criticisms of alliances with Japan and South Korea threaten the Asian order.
The best hope is that President Trump may be more in touch with hard reality than the iconoclast candidate. His acceptance speech was almost statesmanlike. In subsequent interviews, he has shown a softer side, even suggesting that he may keep good aspects of Obamacare, which he had totally damned during the campaign.
However, Trump and America face a string of linked problems: his temperament and fondness for strongman undemocratic leaders; the ultra-neocons who surround him; and tensions between Trump and the mainstream Republican agenda — all of which may lead President Trump to sacrifice America’s global leadership.
With all its ugly bullying blemishes, a generous America was the lynchpin of post-war global prosperity, just as the alliance by old enemies — France and Germany, later joined by the UK — propelled Europe to an uneasy unity and prosperity.
There is a lot of wishful talk of a new global order, where several countries will lead together. But we don’t live in a harmonious wonderland yet. Which leader anywhere understands the obligations of being a global player, let alone is ready to accept them (apart from Pope Francis)? Sadly, in a global world, leaders are becoming more nationalistic with narrower views. Who among Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Park Guen-hye, and Narendra Modi has the best global vision?
Who understands that sometimes short-term national sacrifices must be made for the longer-term good? Will Trump, hitherto the consummate deal-maker seeking short-term profits, show greater imagination or generosity? We live in interesting times indeed. •