Trump victory rattles Asia

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 19, 2016

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the audience after a meeting with Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (not pictured) at the presidential palace ahead of the 2016 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Lima, Peru November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Related story: Pacific Rim Leaders Scramble in Trump Trade Era Above, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the audience after a meeting with Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (not pictured) at the presidential palace ahead of the 2016 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Lima, Peru November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Public displays of anxiety are frowned on in Japanese culture, and are especially unacceptable in political leaders.

Even more anathema to the spirit of “Bushido” – the chivalric code of the samurai warrior – is indulging in self-humiliation.

Thus it was extraordinary on Thursday to see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe take a detour on his flight to Peru for the Asia-Pacific summit next week, in order to scurry to New York to seek an audience with Donald Trump.

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Like other world leaders, Japanese prime ministers usually have much more self-esteem and sense of decorum than to play court to United States presidents before they are inaugurated. Rushing off to kiss the ring of an ethically challenged real estate developer, failed casino owner and jumped up “realty” TV performer is demeaning, to say the least.

Even more demeaning for Abe was being seen and photographed in the executive rooms in Trump Towers. The décor is how one imagines the waiting area of a Russian oligarchs’ brothel looks. Given the apparent Russian financial links of the Trump family, this may not be a coincidence.

The 25 per cent of registered US voters who have made Trump president have not only chosen a liar, bully, cheat, racist, misogynist, they have also anointed a man whose idea of tasteful art is retro bordello.

That Abe would put himself through this distasteful encounter speaks volumes about the fear and dread with which not only Japan, but much of Asia, contemplates the ascension of Trump on January 20.

Trump, after all, is inexperienced in international affairs, unless one counts whatever his dealings with Russia amount to. He showed, during the campaigns for his nomination as the Republican Party candidate and the contest with Hillary Clinton for the presidency, that he is supremely and dangerously ignorant.

What undoubtedly prompted Abe to set aside his better instincts, and decide he had to size up the monster a small minority of U.S. voters have foisted on the world, was some of Trump’s unbelievably stupid campaign rhetoric.

Trump not only said Washington’s allies should pay a greater share of the cost of their protection – there are about 50,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan, at heavy cost to the Tokyo and regional governments – he mused about withdrawing Washington’s ultimate defence guarantee. Instead of Washington protecting Japan and South Korea from attack with the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” it might be better if Tokyo and Seoul developed their own nuclear weapons arsenals, he said.

Of course, that one little unconsidered piece of nonsense not only knocked out of the window the alliances that have underpinned Far Eastern security since the Second World War, it also beat the stuffing out of the whole concept of nuclear non-proliferation. It reinforced the perception that Trump is a man of dangerous stupidity, who cannot be trusted to sustain U.S. alliances. In these circumstances, it might indeed be a good idea for Washington’s traditional allies to get nuclear weapons of their own.

The other question that prompted Abe to divert his flight to New York was whether the U.S. will continue to be a sound economic partner for Japan. Trump’s mindless rubbishing of free trade agreements is of special concern to not only Japan, but to all U.S. business partners. Abe and his government are particularly anxious about Trump’s contempt for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation free trade agreement awaiting ratification by the U.S. Congress.

Tokyo took a lot of persuading by Barack Obama’s administration to join the TPP initiative. But having done so, Abe’s government has become one of the TPP’s most ardent fans. Indeed, TPP would be one of Abe’s most significant achievements to revitalize the Japanese economy. But there is now no hope of Obama being able to get TPP approved by a hostile Congress before he leaves office, and Trump says he plans to junk any agreement that appears to have exported blue collar jobs from the U.S.

Abe emerged from his meeting with Trump saying the new U.S. President is someone “in whom I can have great confidence.”

“We were able to have a very candid talk over a substantial amount of time (90 minutes). We held it in a very warm atmosphere,” he said to reporters after the meeting. “Without confidence between our two nations, our alliance would never function in the future.”

Well, that script could have been written before Abe’s plane touched down in New York. And how well Washington’s alliances function is going to depend a great deal on who Trump picks to advise and administer policy. One can only hope this is done with more sophistication than Trump portrayed as the sociopathic bully-boss in the TV show “The Apprentice,” a performance which seems to have been a major rung on his ladder to the presidency.

The announcement of Trump’s first senior appointments is not encouraging. The common thread among these men appears to be past rejections for anti-social behaviour.

The potential impact on Asia of the Trump presidency goes well beyond Japan, of course.

In Beijing, the Communist Party leaders are delighted. They see the election of Trump not only as a wonderful example of the deadly flaws in democracy, but also as clear evidence of the withering of the U.S. as the world’s supreme super power.

Chinese state media is already trotting out a propaganda line aimed at countries in Asia and Africa, saying the Trump election shows how fallible is the democratic system. Far better, says the Beijing line, is a system of guided meritocracy, such as that followed by the Chinese Communist Party, which aims to produce leaders prepared for the job.

Beijing is ready for some pain if Trump follows through on promises he made during the campaigns. He accused Beijing of currency manipulation and threatened retribution, including imposing a 45 per cent tax on imports from China with the aim of bringing back to the U.S. jobs that have been moved to China to take advantage of lower production costs. But as Trump within the first few days after the election reneged on promises he made during the campaigns, Beijing has good reason to think his threats are empty.

Of more long-term encouragement to Beijing is that China’s leaders see Trump’s victory as a major step in the decline of the American Imperium. Over the last 20 years or so Beijing has pursued a massive program of military reform and modernization that now means China’s armed forces are potent enough to deter the U.S. from supporting Asian allies, without grave risks.

At the same time, Beijing has used the massive profits generated from becoming the world’s manufacturing centre to finance a sustained charm offensive throughout Asia. Beijing’s investment in infrastructure projects such as ports, pipelines, roads and railways in Asian countries has put China at the hub of a network of client states.

Some countries have welcomed the apparent end of the U.S. guarantee of security in Asia. The world recently witnessed the unsettling picture of the new Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, pointedly abandoning his country’s century of reliance on Washington for its security and running to Beijing to swear fealty to China’s President and Communist Party boss, Xi Jinping. Soon afterwards, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, did the same.

Other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand have already made pacts with Beijing. But there are several who are put in a tight spot by Trump’s victory and the uncertainty about what policies he will pursue towards Asia.

The ascendancy of Trump, with his seemingly off-hand regard for nuclear weapons, comes at an especially difficult time for South Korea, which is always under threat of attack by the rogue Marxist monarchy of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. The Seoul government is also an essential player in the international efforts to get Kim to give up, or at least contain, the crude but dangerous nuclear weapons his regime has managed to produce.

But South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has been made almost entirely politically impotent by a scandal. For some years she had nursed a secret relationship with a spiritualist whom she has allowed to dictate government policies and decisions. She has offered to hand over power to the prime minister, but the opposition, which controls parliament, has rejected this. It looks as though South Korea will be effectively leaderless for much of next year.

Trump’s lack of interest in Asia is also disturbing for Vietnam. The Hanoi government has been growing its trade and political links with Washington for several years, both to build its economy and to provide backing against Beijing, which claims large areas of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam.

Vietnam is likely to find itself under increased pressure from Beijing and it is unclear where Hanoi may look for support to replace Washington’s failing hand. By judicious use of its money, Beijing has already destroyed any chance of a united push-back against its territorial expansion in the South China Sea from among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Vietnam has already made some overtures towards India, a regional rival to China. But India’s interest in supporting Vietnam is unlikely to extend much beyond the fun of irritating Beijing.

Trump’s victory is also disconcerting for another natural ally of Washington. Indonesia has 250 million people and is now well into a successful transition from dictatorship to a vigorous democracy. The country is rich in resources and has a young population that makes it a perfect candidate for industrial and technological development.

But nearly 90 per cent of Indonesians are Muslim, though of a particularly moderate brand. Trump’s anti-Muslim diatribes during the campaign – his threats to ban Muslims entering the U.S. and keeping official registers of those already in the country – have not gone down well in Indonesia, just as they have diminished Washington’s influence in the rest of Islam.

It is hard to imagine how any candidate for the U.S. presidency could do a better job of discrediting himself in the eyes of Asia – or the rest of the world for that matter – than Trump has done. So one can understand why Abe was willing to abandon conventions and to open himself to ridicule by going to see exactly what sort of creature U.S. voters have foisted on the world.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Related story: Pacific Rim Leaders Scramble in Trump Trade Era, Reuters

Leaders of Pacific rim nations scrambled to find new free-trade options on Friday as a looming Donald Trump presidency in the United States sounded a possible death knell for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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