China is at the top of Trump's foreign agenda
United States president-elect Donald Trump ran an election campaign that challenged American diplomacy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Since his election triumph, Mr Trump is already rewriting the rules of the presidency and signalling that his foreign-policy approach will be unconventional.
Even before assuming office, Mr Trump has moved away from 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 US priorities, geopolitical focus and goals as well as in the tools Washington would be willing to employ to help achieve its desired objectives.
No country faces a bigger challenge from Mr Trump’s ascent to power than China, which has been flexing its military and economic muscles more strongly than ever. After the Obama administration’s obsequiousness towards it, Beijing must 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.
Mr Trump has signalled a need to recalibrate foreign policy by shifting its geopolitical focus from Russia 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.
Mr Trump’s focus on China indicates that, far from retreating from Asia and the Middle East, America is likely to play a sharper, more concentrated role. For example, the US military could carry out more significant reconnaissance and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
To countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies, the Obama administration’s reluctance to challenge Beijing forced several of them to tread with excessive caution around Chinese concerns and interests. A wake-up call came with Mr Obama’s silence about 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-defence treaty with the Philippines.
That inaction helped spur China’s frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone covering territories it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Mr Obama again hesitated, effectively condoning the action. And recently, his meek response to what Mr Trump called “an unprecedented act” – China’s daring seizure of a US underwater drone – advertised 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 Mr Obama’s watch, it has built seven islands and militarised them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.
China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free – but it knows that its free ride is about to end, with Mr Trump willing to adopt a tougher and less predictable line towards it. This is apparent from Mr Trump’s suggestion, after taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, that a “one China” policy is no sacred cow for him.
By subsidising exports and impeding imports, China has long waged an economic war against major economies. The Obama administration’s announcement last April of a deal under which China would scrap export subsidies on some products, largely agricultural items and textiles, drew scepticism in the markets because it did not cover major exports, including steel.
Trade is one area where Mr Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that helped propel 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 Mr Trump may not be deterred by the spectre of a trade war with China is apparent from some of his appointments, including of economist Peter Navarro, the author of Death By China, The Coming China Wars and Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the Rest of the World.
Mr Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Mr Obama did not.
He is likely to face resistance to recalibrating US foreign policy from two powerful lobbies in Washington – a large tribe of “panda huggers” (those seen as being sympathetic to China) and the establishment figures who spent their formative years during the Cold War obsessing with the Soviet threat and now see Russian president Vladimir Putin as the epitome of evil.
Mr Trump’s task is made more onerous by a mainstream media that remains hostile to him despite its epic failure to anticipate or predict the election outcome.
Still, a determined Donald Trump is likely to reorient US foreign policy in potentially momentous ways.
Brahma Chellaney is an author and professor
Updated: January 2, 2017 04:00 AM