Asia’s reaction to Trump’s ‘America First’ | Daily News

Asia’s reaction to Trump’s ‘America First’

Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Deshal de Mel, John J. Brandon. Pictures by WimalKarunathilaka
Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Deshal de Mel, John J. Brandon. Pictures by WimalKarunathilaka

As America enters a turbulent phase due to President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies and mercurial temperament, it will be important for Asia, and South Asia in particular, to improve regional economic ties and build military alliances to maintain its security and rate of growth.

So said Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Director of Carnegie India, in his keynote address at a panel discussion entitled “Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia”, which took place on Tuesday at the Hilton.

While calling Trump an accidental president, due to the fact that he received less than half the popular vote, Mohan argued that what matters is not how Trump rose to power but how the rest of the world responds to his new policies.

“The international community has a special burden to understand what is going on in America and to prepare to cope with the consequences Trump’s policy shifts are producing,” he said.

These shifts can broadly be referred to as the Trump’s “America First” policies, and they call into question decades of U.S. foreign policy, challenging the essential conventions of America’s engagement with the world community.

The idea of open borders, whereby foreigners can study and work in the United States, is under threat, as are some long-standing American alliances and the country’s role in promoting and financing globalization.

Many are worried about America’s future role with NATO, as Trump has derided the organization and withheld his support. Moreover, many Americans feel as if they have been left behind in a globalizing world, and Trump has promised to bring back many of the jobs that have gone overseas or been lost to automation.

It was due to these promises that Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and forced the renegotiation of NAFTA, a free trade agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Mohan warned that South Asia’s economies would suffer, if America were to raise trade barriers in the near future.

Furthermore, Mohan highlighted the currently shelved travel ban and noted that there will be increased travel restrictions and targeting of illegal immigrants.

For Mohan, Trump is capturing various trends in U.S. domestic politics that crystallize around the following questions; how much of the burden should the country bear to maintain the economic order; should the country be the principal provider of markets for everything other countries produce; should the United States pay the costs of economic globalization?

These questions and concomitant foreign policy shifts challenge the post-World War II international order that America inaugurated, and the country’s inward turn threatens the global status quo both in terms of economics and security.

Indeed, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, argued that America’s role as the steadying force in international relations was under threat.

“Since 1945, America has been the balancer in international relations. There has been a certain strategic policy certainty that the U.S. would be able to play that role in a number of areas. We are now facing a situation in which there is uncertainty about the balancer. Who will play that role going forward?” he asked.

Despite its policy shifts, the United States will not disappear from Asia altogether. Mohan noted that the country has multiple options with regard to its policies towards the continent.

“The United States can sill play a significant role by supporting other alliances. Even with retrenchment, the U.S. can do very interesting things in Asia. We don’t know yet what those will be, but the U.S. is not dead and gone,” he said.

John J. Brandon, Senior Director, International Relations at the Asia Foundation, argued that America’s role in the region will change, but that the Trump Administration is still very much focused on Asia. He noted that Trump has already met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc. He has also reached out to leaders from the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

For Mohan, the key for Asia is not to get caught in the circus around whether or not Trump should be impeached or work to change his policies. Rather, the continent should start to work within the framework of these new policies.

“We have to understand what’s going on in America. We cannot make the assumption that this is an aberration that will return to normal soon. It is my view that we have to prepare for these transformations in U.S. policies,” Mohan said.

How Should Asia Respond?

Since Trump and a good deal of American citizens have doubts about the global trading system and America’s role therein, and since China seems underprepared at the moment to assume its role, Mohan argued that focusing on economic regionalism is the route for Asia, and South Asia in particular, to take.

Jinping has argued that China can replace the U.S. as the champion and chief financier of globalization, but Mohan doubts the veracity of this claim. While the U.S. maintains massive trade deficits with many countries to help spur their economic growth, China preserves trade surpluses with most countries.

“Until we see a change in China’s attitude around trade it is tough to forecast them as a replacement for the States,” he said.

More economic cooperation within South Asia is key to preserving the region’s economic expansion. This might mean working out deals between countries that have historically not cooperated politically or economically.

“We’ve had problems with economic integration in the past. The challenge for us is how do we accelerate regional economic integration? And if some countries don’t want to be part of that integration, can we develop alternative mechanisms through the Indian Ocean or through the Bay of Bengal?” Mohan asked.

Maintaining peace and security in the region will also be a central issue moving forward. Mohan argued that there will likely be transformations in the alliances and alignments of the world’s superpowers.

“Many of the assumptions that we’ve made about the nature of U.S. relations with other great powers will be coming into greater scrutiny.”

“But the question for countries in Asia will be this; can we do more ourselves on the security domain? Or is it going to be left entirely to the Americans? We have had the luxury to expect the Americans to do everything and to criticize them for everything they did. It’s a nice situation to be in, but I think that situation is not going to continue,” he said.

For Mohan, it is crucial that countries large and small, powerful and weak, take on larger responsibilities in maintaining peace in the region.

“Can we expand regional security cooperation? Can more of us do more with each other for this cause, whether it is India and Japan, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka, or India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives cooperating together?”

“I think there is room here for taking more responsibility for our own regions, and I think that’s going to be a big challenge,” he added.

He mentioned, however, that it would be easier for South Asia to structure a balance of power and improve regional security and economic integration if the United States were to maintain a presence in the Indian Ocean in the near future.

“We have a stake in the continued American role in this part of the world. And at the same time we must ensure against a significant rapid downsizing of America’s role,” he said.

Mohan concluded his speech by calling for South Asia to think clearly about its own future and America’s role within it. He argued that it would be crucial to make it easier for the U.S. to operate in South Asia and to work harder to maintain economic and security ties with the States.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to create frameworks for enhanced regional economic and security cooperation.

“We should focus on burden sharing and more regional integration while simultaneously engaging the U.S. on economic and political issues. I think that’s the way to go. That’s the challenge that we in South Asia will have to measure,” he said.



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