Right or wrong, Trump to jolt SE Asia
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.”
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.