Trump’s geopolitical miscalculations

>> Monday, May 22, 2017

Perry Diaz   

When Donald J. Trump was campaigning for the presidency, he projected a “tough guy” image by lambasting everyone that stood on his way or anyone who disagreed with him.  His forays into foreign policy were gutsy and digressed from previous administrations’ diplomatic restraint in handling sensitive geopolitical issues.  
He shocked America’s NATO allies after he suggested that he might not honor the core tenet of the military alliance.  He said the U.S. “would not necessarily defend new NATO members in the Baltics in the event of Russian attack if he were elected to the White House.”
On U.S.-China relations, Trump stirred a hornet’s nest when he challenged the “One-China Policy” and accused China of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.  He vowed to straighten things out in Asia.  
His tough stance against China gave Japan and South Korea, America’s closest treaty allies, a sigh of relief.  At last, they have an American president who would stand by them if attacked, unlike Trump’s predecessor, former president Barack Obama, whom he criticized for appeasing China and didn’t do anything to stop China’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. 
After he assumed the presidency, he must have realized that foreign policy – which he had no experience before – is a complicated and complex game of statesmanship and adroit diplomatic leadership and maneuvering.  It must have been a rude awakening for him to recognize that the practice of brinkmanship is quite different from the “art of the deal,” which he proudly claims to be his forte.
And to make things worse, he appointed his friend Rex Tillerson to the post of Secretary of State.  
With no experience in foreign policy – or government for that matter – poor Tillerson was thrown into the murky waters of geopolitics.  And between him and Trump, how do you think they’d handle bullies like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in the world stage? They are no ordinary world leaders; they are authoritarian dictators who love to threaten the U.S. with nuclear destruction.  In particular, North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un seems to have rankled Trump who doesn’t appear to know how to handle the unpredictable Kim. 
North Korea problem
In an attempt to show Kim that he meant business, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to South Korea.  In a show of grit, Pence  -- like Trump and Tillerson who don’t have any foreign policy experience -- visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and stared across the “no man’s land” between North and South Korea, a day after North Korea’s failed missile launch.  
He talked tough, saying, “There was a period of strategic patience [in reference to Obama’s foreign policy] but the era of strategic patience is over.”  “All options are on the table to achieve the objectives and ensure the stability of the people of this country,” he told reporters while propaganda music was continually played across from the North Korean side.
Meanwhile, Trump announced that an “armada” consisting of an aircraft carrier and several warships were on their way to the Korean Peninsula as a warning to North Korea.  But a few days later, it was revealed in the media that the “armada” was moving in the opposite direction: to Australia to participate in a training exercise.  In a quick attempt to undo his boo-boo, Trump ordered the “armada” to turn around and head to the Korean Peninsula.
But while the exercise of sending the blunt-talking vice president and deploying the “armada” to Korean waters may have achieved a “shock and awe” effect initially, it was blown away by Trump’s erroneous announcement.
What happened with the “armada” may have been deemed as miscommunication between Trump and his admirals.  But from a geopolitical standpoint, Trump lost credibility as Commander-in-Chief, which effectively dealt a major blow to his ability to lead the nation’s military.  For not getting his ducks in a row, Trump’s miscalculation doesn’t bode well with his relation with Asian countries, particularly the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  Most of the ASEAN members are now kowtowing to Beijing because of their perception that Trump has abandoned Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy that has kept most of them in America’s orbit.   
South China Sea concessions
After the recent Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump’s hard-line stance against China melted like a marshmallow over a fire.  After two days of negotiations, Trump declared that China was not a “currency manipulator” and decided to maintain the status quo on trade issues. 
For these concessions, Trump wanted Xi to help with the North Korea problem.  In return, Xi responded with his signature half-smile but made no promises.  But if there was one winner during the summit, it was Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump whose three trademarks for her jewelry and spa brand were approved by China the same day she and her husband Jared Kushner sat down for dinner with Xi and Trump at the Mar-a-Lago.  
It’s interesting to note that the Chinese trademarks requires that Ivanka’s products be manufactured in China using Chinese workers, which begs the question: What happened to Trump’s “America First” slogan?  Or is it still the same old “Made in China” trade policies?  Does it sound like another miscalculation?  Indeed, the calculus doesn’t add up in America’s favor.  Two winners emerged from the summit: Xi Jinping and Ivanka Trump.
TPP miscalculation
But the worst in Trump’s miscalculations in Asia was his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a security and economic agreement between 12 countries led by the U.S.  Seven of the member-countries hail from the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam, of which four are ASEAN members (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam).  Collectively, the TPP member-countries account for 40% of world trade.  Ironically, it was the U.S. under the presidency of Obama who started the negotiations among the 12 countries.  
Unfortunately, while 11 countries ratified TPP in 2016, the U.S. Congress under Republican control failed – or refused – to ratify it in the last few months of Obama’s presidency.  When Trump took over, withdrawal from TPP was one of his first acts – victims of his vindictive assault on policies and programs that Obama implemented. 
Following Trump’s withdrawal last February, Japan (the largest remaining TPP member) said that the TPP was meaningless without the U.S.  But recently, Japan’s position on TPP changed.  She realized that China is moving fast to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. in the Pacific Rim region.  And without the U.S. the other member-countries are playing the “China card” by negotiating their own trade agreements with China.  
Among them are Canada and Mexico, two of the three member-countries of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The third member-country is the U.S.  But what made Canada and Mexico nervous was Trump’s threat to withdraw from NAFTA.  But it was averted when the Canadian prime minister and Mexican president called Trump and talked him out of withdrawing.  Needless to say, it would have been another humongous miscalculation had Trump decided to dismantle NAFTA.   
Japan steps in
It finally dawned on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that if China joins the TPP, she would end up controlling the partnership, which would make Abe play second fiddle to China.  And given the current geopolitical tremors that are occurring between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Japan is considering taking over the reins of the TPP.  
 With all of Trump’s geopolitical miscalculations, he could lose America’s preeminent role in world affairs.  While Pax Americana has been showing cracks on it façade, the U.S. under Obama managed to contain China.  
But just four months into Trump’s presidency, China’s takeover of South China Sea is secured.  With Trump making all these miscalculations, Pax Americana is on the throes of death.  And taking its place would be a bipolar world order: Pax Russica in the West and Pax Sinica in the East. (


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