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Trump’s pivot to Asia: A boon for the US arms industry?

Richard A. Bitzinger December 8, 2016 3:59 AM (UTC+8)
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When Donald J. Trump was running for President, he seemed decidedly uninterested or even downright negative toward the Asia-Pacific. He once dismissed Asia as “too far away” for him to care. He argued that close allies Japan and South Korea should do more for their own defense – up to and including acquiring their own nuclear weapons – ignoring the fact that these countries contribute billions of dollars every year to supporting US forces on their soil. Finally, he appeared prepared to cede US influence, in his scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

Rather, Trump appeared obsessed with the Middle East, and particularly on defeating ISIS. This fixation was reflected in his choices for National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defense, two former generals (Michael Flynn and John Mattis, respectively) who have spent most of their careers in Afghanistan and Iraq, or combating terrorism.

To a large extent, therefore, it seemed that Trump was willing to relinquish US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific to China. In anticipation, some countries like the Philippines appeared ready to bandwagon with Beijing or Russia (even raising the possibility of buying weapons from these countries), or else were (like Japan) girding themselves to take full responsibility for their self-defense, absent the US security guarantee.

A heightened, Trump-fueled US-China rivalry

Then came Trump’s telephone chat with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, which might be followed up with a visit by her to the United States early next year (although it is not certain if she will meet with Trump). In addition, Trump has been increasingly vocal in criticizing China as a currency manipulator and job-stealer.

Suddenly, the old Sino-American competition is back, and it’s meaner than ever. Beijing is furious with Trump for cozying up to Tsai and Taiwan, and Trump is typically defiant and dismissive. Worries before the election that Trump was going to be a neo-isolationist, or preoccupied with the Middle East and terrorism, have been replaced by a much more aggressive US stance toward China, which could actually increase the US military presence in Asia.

There is a certain logic to all this. Candidate Trump called for raising US defense spending, in order to rebuild a supposedly hollowed-out and emaciated military. In particular, he supported the idea of  increasing the size of the US Navy from its current 272 ships to 350 ships, including up to three additional aircraft carriers (for a total of 13). But an isolationist Trump administration would have no need for such a large navy, other than to just steam up and down the American coasts.

Fat times again for the US arms industry

A renewed US-China strategic competition suddenly gives Washington – and particularly the US Navy, which always requires a nation-state threat to act against – an arguable raison d’état to increase spending and procurement. This is all good news for America’s defense industry.

Between 2008 and 2016, US spending on military R&D and procurement fell by more than one third; the proverbial “seven fat years” of the immediate post-9/11 period were over. Under Trump, however, a turnaround can be expected. The US shipbuilding industry, almost entirely dependent on military contracts, could be awash with orders for the next decade. Procurement of new fighter jets, especially the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) are likely to rise as well, as will all the ancillary pieces of equipment that go on these ships or submarines or aircraft: missiles, sensors, engines, helicopters, torpedoes, etc.

Presume, too, a surge in US overseas arms sales. A mercantilist like Trump will almost certainly want to promote US exports, and armaments are one of the US industry’s best products – and certainly one of the most competitive in the global marketplace. In particular, expect Trump to aggressively press US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific to buy American weaponry, so as to prove their “loyalty.”

Moreover, Trump is more likely to use arms sales as a political tool. In this regard, he could likely follow up his cozier relationship with Taiwan with offers to sell it some of the most advanced weaponry in the US kit. This could include the JSF, long denied to Taipei.

A boon for the F-22?

A Trump administration could, in fact, be a boon for one weapon system in particular: the F-22 Raptor. A fifth-generation stealth fighter, the F-22 was built only for the US Air Force (USAF), and production was ended five years ago and capped at 187 aircraft (considerably fewer than its originally anticipated number of 750 planes). Its high cost – around US$150 million per plane – was part of the reason for its premature termination, but restarting the production line might be the right idea now. The USAF still has nearly 200 aging F-15 combat aircraft in its inventory; these could be replaced with new F-22s, instead of F-35s, boosting the USAF’s high-end fighter inventories. And as the price of the JSF continues to inflate, the more-capable F-22 looks increasingly attractive as an alternative.

More important, the Trump administration might seek to overturn the congressional ban on exporting the F-22. Originally implemented as a way to protect the fighter’s stealth technology, such a prohibition may be superfluous now. In addition, more sales to the USAF would bring the unit price down to where the F-22 would be competitive with other fighter jets on the global arms market.

This could also open the floodgates for potential export sales, particularly to countries in the Asia-Pacific that at one time had expressed an interest in buying the F-22, that is, Australia, Japan, and South Korea (Israel is another likely customer).

To be fair, Trump has not taken office yet, and much is still unknown about his future Asia policy. But based on his behavior so far, on his apparent desire for a trade war with China, and on the anti-China consultants who are informally advising him at the moment (and who may pack his national security apparatus), it is more likely that the Asia-Pacific will continue to be the object of Washington’s close attention. Trump’s own “pivot to Asia” may actually turn out to be more military-oriented than Obama’s.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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