The Slatest

Asia Wonders if Trump Really Means What He Says


Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; gabriel__bostan/iStock.

This is the third in a series of posts looking at how Donald Trump’s presidency could impact countries and regions around the world.

While a lot of things Donald Trump promised during his campaign probably aren’t actually going to happen, he did suggest on Monday that he was serious about at least one of his pledges: his vow to pull the United States out of the proposed 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

There are good economic and legal arguments against the TPP, including the secrecy under which it was negotiated and its controversial provisions on intellectual property. But Trump has never displayed any understanding of these, articulating his opposition to the deal during a debate by saying that the agreement was “designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door, and totally take advantage of everyone.” In fact, the agreement explicitly did not include China and was intended in part to help the United States maintain influence in the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance an increasingly influential China.

Now that the deal’s on the ropes—it’s hard to imagine it happening without the U.S. on board—the governments involved are probably wondering why they spent so much time and energy negotiating the controversial agreement in the first place. “Key Asian allies of the Untied States, I think, are quite concerned because of the amount of bandwidth they’ve put into this,” says Alex Neill, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Singapore. “There was a lot of protracted negotiation to reach this agreement. A lot of friends of America in the Asia-Pacific feel that there’s a bit of a vacuum now. China may see this as an opportunity because it was basically bypassed in the TPP.” Indeed, the presidents of China and Russia announced at a summit last weekend that they will push to establish their own free-trade area among East Asian countries.

Trump’s promises to get tough on China were a constant refrain of his campaign, including vows to label China a currency manipulator and even slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States. But Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that Beijing probably hasn’t started panicking quite yet. “The U.S. has on multiple occasions and on multiple administrations threated to call China out as a currency manipulator, but at this point there’s a sense that cooler heads will prevail and large multinationals that do business in China would lobby quite hard against the kind of tariffs that he’s been discussing.” Even Trump is probably aware of the impact on consumer prices in the United States that a trade war with China would have, and it’s not unreasonable to expect he won’t be quite the populist crusader against moneyed interests that he promised to be on the stump.

Chinese leaders, who like their American governments stable and predictable, probably preferred Hillary Clinton, but it’s possible that a Trump presidency could work out well for them. If Trump doesn’t actually follow through on his trade war talk, but does kill TPP and follow through on promises to reduce American security commitments to allies, including in Asia, China will be happy. “There are definitely some analysts in China who saw a positive side to a Trump election in the sense that the United States would leave a big vacuum and China could fill that,” says Economy. The leaders of traditional U.S. allies like the Philippines and Malaysia were suggesting they want closer relations with Beijing even before Trump’s election, and if this trend accelerates, it could help Beijing solidify its controversial territorial claims in the South China Sea, claims these countries—with U.S. backing—have traditionally contested, and have been rejected by international courts.

China might be feeling pretty good, but countries that rely on U.S. security guarantees, particularly those like Japan and South Korea that host large numbers of U.S. troops, are nervous. “Trump’s rhetoric has created extreme nervousness in South Korea as well as in Japan,” says Katharine H.S. Moon, a professor of Asian Studies at Wellesley College who studies the U.S.-South Korea relationship.* “Both countries have been very worried that Trump is signaling a potential withdrawal of forces, or at least a reduction. These acts could create such a vacuum in the region, it could upset the entire post-World War II status quo there.”

Asian leaders were particularly perplexed during the campaign by Trump’s suggestion that he would be willing to withdraw U.S. troops from the region if allies didn’t pay more for protection. (Contra Trump, they do already pay quite a bit.) He also said that they might be better off with their own nuclear arsenals, rather than relying on U.S. security guarantees. (Adding to the confusion, Trump has, inaccurately, denied ever saying this.) Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear nonproliferation at Middlebury College and founder of the Arms Control Wonk blog, suspects that Trump’s statements indicate he may not actually believe this. “He always is talking about how allies aren’t paying enough,” says Lewis. “People say to him, they won’t pay you, they’ll just build nuclear weapons. I think he thinks he’s calling their bluff.”

Even if he doesn’t mean it, these statements still have an impact in South Korea, argues Moon. “This talk should never have started. You shouldn’t foment something you can’t take responsibility for,” she says, noting that polls show growing support in South Korea for developing the country’s own nuclear arsenal, so Trump’s rhetoric could empower hard-liners. This is not a good moment for that: It’s a chaotic time in the country’s politics, the government may be about to fall, and power is up for grabs. The prospect of a nuclear South Korea would alarm China, as well as Japan—where nuclear weapons are far less popular for obvious reasons but where the government has been gradually chipping away at the postwar pacifist constitution. “We’re looking at hypothetically an arms race in a region that increases the risk of something going wrong, even if by mistake,” says Moon.

That something could very well involve North Korea, a topic on which Trump has also sent mixed signals, at one point suggesting he’d be willing to invite Kim Jong-un for a hamburger in the United States, but also suggested that he would “get tough” on China to make them pressure North Korea into giving up its nukes, something that three straight U.S. administrations have failed to do.

The author of The Art of the Deal isn’t likely to have better luck, suggests Lewis. “People haven’t gotten used to the idea that that horse is out of the barn,” he says. “North Korea has nuclear weapons and you’re not going to get rid of them now. There is no getting tough with them. All you’re going to do if you get tough with them is increase the risk of a war in which they would use those weapons.” When critics talk about the risk of Trump’s erratic behavior and rhetoric starting a nuclear war, it’s generally North Korea they have in mind.

Right now, most Asian governments seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the new administration. An adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was the first foreign leader to meet in person with Trump last Thursday, put it like this after meeting with Trump’s transition team: “All the people shared the same opinion—that we don’t need to be nervous about every single word and phrase said during Mr. Trump’s campaign.”

In other words, let’s hope he didn’t really mean all that stuff.

*Correction, Nov. 23, 2016: This post originally misspelled Katharine H.S. Moon’s first name.

Earlier in Slate: