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Trump’s disastrous foreign policy in Asia is the worst since Vietnam

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The withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may have been the greatest self-inflicted American foreign policy blunder in Asia since the Vietnam War. Asia is all about business, trade and realism, much more so than any other part of the world.

I know this intimately as a foreign correspondent for three decades for The Atlantic. So, the withdrawal from the trade pact, which was supposed to have been the capstone to the U.S. pivot to Asia, signaled to Asian leaders and elites that America is now less and less a serious, reliable partner.

{mosads}As one Asian leader said, it was like Asia was led like a bride to the altar and deserted by the groom at the last minute. So it is a good thing that Trump may now be reconsidering his withdrawal from the trade pact.


While China has become irresistible to our Asian allies, the United States under President Donald Trump has become unreliable. China has a vision, a grand strategy, for not only the Asia-Pacific but for Eurasia as a whole.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to recreate the trade routes of the Tang and Yuan dynasties between China, Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean, by both land and sea. It is an infrastructure formula in keeping with China’s own history, even as it is a branding operation for China’s effort to dominate transportation corridors in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Belt and Road is problematic in quite a few respects, but at least it is a plan, a direction, that everybody in Asia is now talking about.

In contrast, by withdrawing from TPP and by indicating a lack of enthusiasm and knowledge about America’s long-standing alliances in Asia, President Trump now is perceived as having no vision for the most important economic geography in the world.

Rather than lead a free-trade and democratic alliance in the Asia-Pacific, Trump has shrunk down our vision in Asia to confronting North Korea and seeking better bilateral deals with China: narrow, functional goals that make Asians feel America is merely out for itself.

Ever since President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, right up through the presidency of Barack Obama, albeit with significant variations, American foreign policy in Asia has been rather consistent. Asia, and China especially, were seen as just too important for the policy zigzags from Washington that have characterized the approaches of different presidents to the Middle East, for example. But Trump is wrecking that bipartisan consensus on Asia policy.

It is important here to understand what the United States has actually been for a good part of its history. America, geopolitically defined, has been a liberal maritime power, protecting the sea lines of communications for itself and its allies, defending access to choke points and hydrocarbon regions, and enabling, through its Navy, the process of globalization.

Free trade and liberal democracy, in both Asia and Europe, have been what the United States has been substantially about: the two go hand-in-hand. There is no problem with seeking better trade deals, but to spiritually question the logic of free trade undermines American powerdom.

Protectionism, neo-isolationism and ambivalence over long-standing alliances that America has forged since the Second World War, are all part of a piece, and signal a retreat into amoral geopolitics, rather than a continued engagement in the battle of ideals.

The concept that Trump’s bark is worse than his bite — that, discounting his tweets, this is a normal Republican foreign policy, is nonsense. America, as the world’s foremost power still, is judged by the alignment between its presidential rhetoric, military positioning and diplomacy.

White House statements have historically been a cornerstone of American world leadership. But under Trump, there has been no such alignment, and the rhetoric has fostered a slow-motion, corrosive rot in the American brand everywhere I travel in Asia and Europe.

Countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia are ready to resist China, or at least balance between China and America. But the withdrawal from TPP has indicated to them that they may have no choice but to make a separate peace with China.

This is a subtle and insidious process that happens behind the headlines and is infinitely deniable, even as it is happening. But one day, somewhere near the end of Trump’s four-year term, we may all wake up and see that Asia and the world have fundamentally changed.

Obama and Hillary Clinton may have gotten cold feet about TPP, but Trump was most fervently opposed to it and withdrew from it as president.

This is how great powers begin the process of passing into historical oblivion. It is late in the day but maybe not too late for Trump to reverse course. 

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century,” to be published in March. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at the Eurasia Group.

Tags Barack Obama China–United States relations Donald Trump Donald Trump economy Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration Hillary Clinton International relations International trade One Belt, One Road Trade blocs Trans-Pacific Partnership

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