Right or wrong, Trump to jolt SE Asia

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ROGER MITTON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

WHEN it comes to at­ti­tudes about Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial con­tender Don­ald Trump, it is tempt­ing to re­call those catchy lyrics from the Bea­tles: “You say high, I say low; you say why and I say I don’t know.”

No one knows whether Trump will win or not, or what might hap­pen if he does, but ev­ery­one has a strong, al­most vis­ceral opin­ion about the man.

That love-him-or-hate-him chasm was ev­i­dent in a cou­ple of re­cent ar­ti­cles in two of the most pres­ti­gious pub­li­ca­tions in the United States, and both sig­nalled that a Trump vic­tory would be a bomb­shell for this re­gion.

First, there was a Septem­ber 12 com­men­tary in the in­flu­en­tial For­eign Af­fairs mag­a­zine by Doug Bandow, a se­nior fel­low at Wash­ing­ton’s Cato In­sti­tute and a for­mer spe­cial as­sis­tant to US Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan.

En­ti­tled “What Don­ald Trump Gets Right About US Al­liances”, Mr Bandow’s ar­ti­cle fo­cused on the can­di­date’s de­fence pol­icy, yet was equally ap­pli­ca­ble to Trump’s mus­cu­lar stance on trade, im­mi­gra­tion and crime.

In al­most manichean con­trast, on Septem­ber 19 an­other vaunted pub­li­ca­tion, The New York Times, car­ried a story by an­other re­spected an­a­lyst, Justin Wolfers, an eco­nomics pro­fes­sor, that slammed Trump.

In the ar­ti­cle “Why a Pres­i­dent Trump Could Start a Trade War With Sur­pris­ing Ease”, Mr Wolfers fo­cused on trade, but his line of rea­son­ing ex­tended to what Mr Trump could do on other is­sues like de­fence and im­mi­gra­tion. He noted that for­eign trade pol­icy is one area where Mr Trump could uni­lat­er­ally en­force the changes he has promised in his cam­paign – and for many, es­pe­cially in ASEAN, that is a deeply scary prospect.

Is it likely? Should we hide un­der the bed? Or re­lax with a cup of tea? No one knows for sure. There is no play­book for this one.

Yes, it is an elec­tion in the world’s wack­i­est democ­racy, but for two sober ob­servers in two au­thor­i­ta­tive pub­li­ca­tions to di­verge so rad­i­cally is not so much rare as weird.

More im­por­tantly, with the polls more or less dead­locked and a Trump vic­tory quite pos­si­ble, what might it mean for this re­gion if he does win the keys to the White House on Novem­ber 8?

Let’s start with Mr Bandow, who most def­i­nitely says high, go with Mr Trump, be­cause he’s right about Amer­i­can de­fence pol­icy, par­tic­u­larly in East Asia, where he claims the United States is be­ing ripped off.

Mr Bandow lauds Mr Trump for ques­tion­ing why Wash­ing­ton spends so much money and sends so many troops to pro­tect al­lies in far-off Ja­pan, South Korea and South­east Asia.

Trump says these places are pros­per­ous and quite ca­pa­ble of pay­ing for their own de­fence, and if they did then the United States could save up to US$150 bil­lion a year by cur­tail­ing its for­eign mil­i­tary com­mit­ments.

Some ex­perts have lam­pooned him for say­ing this, but not Mr Bandow, who wrote, “Trump is right. US pol­icy to­ward its al­lies re­ally is ob­so­lete.”

Per­haps it is. But US treaty al­lies like the Philip­pines and Thai­land would be un­happy if the Trump doc­trine led to the can­cel­la­tion of the an­nual Co­bra Gold re­gional ex­er­cise and the with­drawal of the US Pa­cific Fleet.

More­over, Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte may have re­tracted his call for Amer­i­cans to exit his coun­try, but he bet­ter be more care­ful about mak­ing such threats to Mr Trump, or else they may be promptly acted upon.

Lest you are con­vinced by Mr Bandow’s ring­ing en­dorse­ment of Mr Trump’s stance in this re­gard, let me in­ject a cau­tion­ary note.

When I was based in Wash­ing­ton, Mr Bandow oc­ca­sion­ally gave me quotable com­ments on var­i­ous is­sues and we once lunched at the Hen­ley Park Ho­tel, next door to the Cato In­sti­tute.

He is not a friv­o­lous man, but nor is he a saint ei­ther, as was ev­i­dent later when he was obliged to quit Cato for be­ing paid to write favourable ar­ti­cles by the in­fa­mous lob­by­ist Jack Abramoff.

That was a decade ago, and while he now ap­pears to have come in from the cold if his work is car­ried in For­eign Af­fairs, his past be­hav­iour does give pause for thought.

Turn­ing now to the op­po­site view from Mr Wolfers, who most def­i­nitely says low, do not go with Mr Trump, be­cause the man may well start a dis­as­trous trade war that will do no one any good.

Mr Wolfers notes that Mr Trump has vowed to “rip up” in­ter­na­tional trade deals, with­draw from the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, and jack up tar­iffs on goods im­ported from China and other Asian na­tions.

And given Trump’s aver­sion to trade pacts, no­tably the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, he may also nix the Sin­ga­pore-US FTA, and abort plans for FTAs with Malaysia, Thai­land and ASEAN as a whole.

Mr Wolfers wrote, “As pres­i­dent he could pretty much do it. And there’s very lit­tle Congress can do to stop him, even if the re­sult is a costly trade war.”

The only re­course for China and other Asian na­tions would be to re­tal­i­ate by rais­ing their own tar­iffs. “It’s a prospect that scares many econ­o­mists, but ap­pears not to worry Trump,” said Mr Wolfers.

It does not ap­pear to worry a large chunk of the US elec­torate ei­ther. As Mr Bandow once told me, “The prob­lem is that the Amer­i­can peo­ple in gen­eral just don’t pay a lot of at­ten­tion to the de­tails of for­eign pol­icy.”

It cer­tainly wor­ries peo­ple in this re­gion, how­ever, for whom the prospect of a Trump pres­i­dency may bring a cat­a­strophic jolt to their econ­omy and a re­duced US de­fence um­brella.

So, can we say high or low? Or should we just breathe slowly into a brown pa­per bag? Af­ter all, there are still 46 days to go, and as the guy who fell off a high-rise said as he passed each floor, “So far, so good.”

Photo: EPA

Sup­port­ers of the 2016 US Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump at­tend a cam­paign rally at the Ger­main Arena in Fort My­ers, Florida, on Septem­ber 19.

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