Pre­par­ing Asia for the pres­i­dency of Trump

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - GARETH EVANS news­room@mm­times.com – Project Syn­di­cate Gareth Evans, Aus­tralia’s for­eign min­is­ter from 1988 to 1996 and pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group from 2000 to 2009, is chan­cel­lor of Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

WHETHER or not US Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump be­haves bet­ter once in of­fice than he did on the cam­paign trail, US global au­thor­ity has al­ready taken a bat­ter­ing, not least among its al­lies and part­ners in Asia.

Ex­er­cis­ing soft power – lead­ing by demo­cratic and moral ex­am­ple – will not be easy for Mr Trump, given the dis­dain he showed for truth, ra­tio­nal ar­gu­ment, ba­sic hu­man de­cency, and racial, re­li­gious and gen­der dif­fer­ences, not to men­tion the fact that he was not ac­tu­ally elected by a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers. And when it comes to ex­er­cis­ing harder power – do­ing what it takes to counter se­ri­ous chal­lenges to peace and se­cu­rity – there will be lit­tle con­fi­dence in Mr Trump’s judge­ment, given that al­most ev­ery state­ment he made dur­ing his cam­paign was ei­ther wildly con­tra­dic­tory or down­right alarm­ing.

Main­tain­ing se­cu­rity, sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity in Asia re­quires a co­op­er­a­tive en­vi­ron­ment, in which coun­tries se­cure their na­tional in­ter­ests through part­ner­ships – not ri­val­ries – and trade freely with one an­other. The only grounds for con­fi­dence on this front af­ter Mr Trump’s vic­tory is that he may ac­tu­ally do none of the things he said he would, such as start­ing a trade war with China, walk­ing away from al­liance com­mit­ments and sup­port­ing Ja­pan and South Korea go­ing nu­clear.

With lit­tle or no hard knowl­edge of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, Mr Trump is re­ly­ing on in­stincts that are all over the map. He com­bines “Amer­ica first” iso­la­tion­ist rhetoric with mus­cu­lar talk of “mak­ing Amer­ica great again”. Stak­ing out im­pos­si­bly ex­treme po­si­tions that you can read­ily aban­don may work in ne­go­ti­at­ing prop­erty deals, but it is not a sound ba­sis for con­duct­ing for­eign pol­icy.

Mr Trump’s dan­ger­ous in­stincts may be bri­dled if he is ca­pa­ble of as­sem­bling an ex­pe­ri­enced and so­phis­ti­cated team of for­eign pol­icy ad­vis­ers. But this re­mains to be seen, and the US con­sti­tu­tion grants him ex­tra­or­di­nary per­sonal power as com­man­derin-chief, if he chooses to ex­er­cise it.

US lead­er­ship in Asia is a dou­bleedged sword. Noisy as­ser­tions of con­tin­ued pri­macy are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. China’s le­git­i­mate de­mand to be ac­cepted as a joint rule-maker, not just a rule-fol­lower, has to be recog­nised. But when China over­reaches, as it has done with its ter­ri­to­rial as­ser­tions in the South China Sea, there does need to be push­back. On that front, a quiet but firm US role re­mains nec­es­sary and wel­come.

Shortly af­ter for­mer pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton left of­fice, I heard him say pri­vately that the US could choose to use its “great and un­ri­valled eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power to try to stay top dog on the global block in per­pe­tu­ity”. A bet­ter choice, how­ever, would be “to try to cre­ate a world in which we will be com­fort­able liv­ing, when we are no longer top dog on the global block”. That lan­guage seems to be anath­ema for any­one hold­ing high of­fice in the United States, at least pub­licly. But it is what Asia wants to hear.

For Aus­tralia and other US al­lies and part­ners in the re­gion, this pres­i­den­tial elec­tion makes it clear that we can no longer – as­sum­ing we ever could – take co­her­ent, smart US lead­er­ship for granted. We must do more for our­selves and work to­gether more, while re­ly­ing less on the United States.

Mr Trump will prob­a­bly have more in­stinc­tive sym­pa­thy for Aus­tralia than he will for many other US al­lies. We are seen as pay­ing our al­liance dues, not least by hav­ing fought along­side the United States in ev­ery one of its for­eign wars over the past cen­tury. And, as co­hab­i­tants in the An­glo­sphere, we are in Mr Trump’s cul­tural com­fort zone. But Aus­tralia will be any­thing but com­fort­able if the larger re­gional dy­nam­ics go off the rails.

We should have learned by now that the US, un­der ad­min­is­tra­tions with far more prima fa­cie cred­i­bil­ity than Mr Trump’s, is per­fectly ca­pa­ble of mak­ing ter­ri­ble mistakes, such as the wars in Viet­nam and Iraq. We now have to be ready for Amer­i­can blun­ders as bad as, or worse than, in the past. We will have to make our own judge­ments about how to re­act to events, based on our own na­tional in­ter­ests.

This does not mean that Aus­tralia should walk away from its al­liance with the United States. But we will need to be more scep­ti­cal of US poli­cies and ac­tions than in re­cent decades. Aus­tralia should be­come much more self-con­sciously in­de­pen­dent, and as­sign much higher pri­or­ity to build­ing closer trade and se­cu­rity ties with Ja­pan, South Korea, In­dia and es­pe­cially In­done­sia, our huge near-neigh­bour.

No one should give ground if China over­reaches, and Aus­tralia should, now more than ever, work closely with our Asian neigh­bours to en­sure that it does not. But we must also recog­nise the le­git­i­macy of China’s new great-power as­pi­ra­tions and en­gage with it non-con­fronta­tion­ally. We will all ben­e­fit from a com­mon re­gional se­cu­rity frame­work based on mu­tual re­spect and rec­i­proc­ity.

We can only hope that Mr Trump will dis­pel our worst fears when he is in of­fice. But in the mean­time, Aus­tralian and other re­gional pol­i­cy­mak­ers should ad­here to a sim­ple mantra: More self-re­liance. More Asia. Less US.

Photo: EPA

Filipino pro­test­ers burn a pic­ture of Don­ald Trump dur­ing a protest against the pres­i­dent-elect in front of the US em­bassy in Manila, Philip­pines, on Novem­ber 10.

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