Trump’s temptations for war in Asia

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The first challenge for President-elect Donald Trump will clearly be to reunite the country, which is terribly scarred and split asunder after a long and vicious campaign. He needs to reach out to those he has so far mocked and insulted, and make them feel he will represent them anyway.

Yes, he was elected by the “deplorables” (the estranged white boys and girls who made too many mistakes in their lives and want a second chance), but he must also get in touch with the other “deplorables” (the minorities, recent immigrants, gay people, single mothers, liberals). The other “deplorables” must feel at some point represented by him; otherwise the country will be very hard to rule.

This is what happened with his two “predecessors” in Italy and Thailand, Silvio Berlusconi and Thaksin Shinawatra. They were elected by a majority of the country, but tried and failed to unite the rest of the country. It happened for complex and different reasons in each country, but these precedents tell us that Trump’s hardest task begins today, by speaking to his opponents. And yet if he fails, unlike in Italy or Thailand, he has recourse to an old trick in the bag of any emperor: prime a large clash that will bring the nation together in fear of the enemy.

Certainly, Trump must also get his economic priorities in order. Does he really want to move back from the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Asia and leave this space open for China to establish its own FTA in the region? This is economics and global strategy intertwined. Again, he may be successful in turning the US economy around, or he could fail, but in either case his foreign policy toward China may go on just the same. If the US economy is stronger, Trump may want to confront what he has named as its biggest and most unfair competitor; if he fails to improve the economy, he may look to China as a scapegoat.

Then on the general foreign agenda, judging from his official statements, he wants to make China an official currency manipulator, thus slap punitive trade sanctions against it. He doesn’t care for Europe, the European currency, nor its economic and political integration or disintegration. He admires Russian president Vladimir Putin. Of course, anything can change. The man is volatile and perhaps whimsical, but he is also a businessman and known to flip-flop, as he did many times in the past. But why should we ignore what he said? Isn’t this the one big thing many newspapers did wrong—not believing that he would do what he said he would do? In this case, beat both Republican and Democratic establishments.

After all, his foreign policy seems pretty simple and linear, unlike Hillary Clinton’s plan. Her plan was to support failing Europe (almost a lost cause), confront Russia and super-pivot to Asia. Each of these three fronts is very complicated, and likely to fail in influencing the other two. In comparison, Trump takes it easy: abandon Europe to its fate, cut a deal with Putin, and get his support in Asia, where he might make China an offer it can’t refuse. We don’t know what the offer would be, but as a plan it is pretty linear—although even dealing with China alone won’t be easy. But aligning with Russia against China, just as Nixon aligned with China against Russia in 1971, could help turn the tables.

Of course, we know even less about what China might do in this case, because it is two “ifs” removed: if Trump wants a showdown with China, and if China reacts or buckles. But another way to look at Trump’s plan on China is that it is basically the same as Hillary’s without the distractions of Europe and with the support of Russia. This substantial consistency makes it more likely.

We don’t know if China is preparing for it. The official reactions have been so far muted, and arguing that Trump will want to do business with China and Beijing is ready for that. This is possibly right. But in case they are wrong, it is worth looking also at the political situation in China presently.

Asia is emerging into a new balance of power. As a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment argued, it is impossible to think in the short- and medium-term that either the US or China could keep a dominant position in East Asia.

Countries of middling power (like Japan and India) or with great ambition (like Vietnam) have reluctantly accepted the dominance of American in the region. However, it is very unlikely that they will tomorrow or in the short term accept the dominance of China in the region. After all, America gained its role in Asia by defeating Japan in World War II, through the war in Korea and the long and exhausting Vietnam War in the 1970’s. Besides, America kept peace and stability in part of Asia during the Cold War, while triggering Asian development since the late 80s with the globalization it led.

Conversely, China has a very different record in the region. It performed badly during its wars in Korea and Vietnam, was basically beaten by the Japanese during the invasion, and tied its own development to American protection and support in the past 30 years. It won only a brief border war with India in 1962, but that left the Indians deeply hurt in their pride and not won over by China’s force. Moreover, unlike Vietnam or Japan, India was never part of the Chinese sphere of influence and the war brought this large country for the first time directly in contact and competition with China.

While now Japan and Vietnam feel they don’t want to go back under China’s wing, the Indians, who have never been under China’s wing, don’t want to become a Chinese vassal. This predicament is all very difficult without taking into consideration the presence of Russia. Russia knows very well that if China were to become the regional hegemon, its control of Siberia could be weakened, and therefore it dreads this possibility.

Years ago, I detailed China’s geographical difficulties. However, on the other hand, it is impossible to rule out the growing weight the Chinese economy has on the region. Infrastructure, trade, and industrial development all are increasingly connected to China’s own growth and development. It is objectively reshaping the political geography of the region and neither the US nor any other regional power has the resources to replace Chinese investment or market potentials. But it is not unilateral: each country under the protection of the United States and with growing economic trade relationships with China also engages in multilateral connections with all its regional neighbors.

A big intricate picture is emerging, similar to that of continental Europe in the mid-19th century, but because of the size of the countries and the number of countries in Asia, the 19th century complications are exacerbated, they are on steroids.

A complex web of ties could be put in order with bilateral agreements led by China and United States. However, this could be difficult because many countries are not simply dependent on China or the United States, but they also have complex relations with other countries in the region.

This won’t necessarily be negative. It could create positive competition in the region in which each country competes with one another. But it could also mean that vindictive rivalries could emerge, pushing toward wars or conflicts. Many have a lot to lose in conflicts and war, but if economies were to slow and social chaos were to emerge, the temptation for a fast resolution of complex issues could grow more tempting.

For its part, if China doesn’t want to become the passive object of others’ plans it needs to make a lot of changes externally, as it is already doing by warming up to neighbors like the Philippines or Malaysia, and internally. Its state-dominated economy and its opaque political structure are two major liabilities. Whatever Trump’s plans, Beijing should act fast.

Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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