Philippine fishermen steer a dinghy during sunset in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro
Philippine fishermen steer a dinghy during sunset in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro

Listen to Mr Trump’s critics and you’d think the Asia-Pacific region had been idyllic until January 20, 2017, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated.

A recent speech in Australia by Ambassador David Shear, a former senior US State and Defense Department official, included typical criticism of the Trump Administration. 

Ambassador Shear stated: “An erratic administration has undermined allied confidence in the credibility of our commitments in the Western Pacific, as our friends begin to question America’s long-term reliability as a trustworthy ally.” He warned of the “slippage of American authority, the decline of US economic salience, the constriction of US military operations in the Western Pacific, and the gradual diminution of our alliances” ending “with Beijing’s establishment of a Sino-centric economic and security order in Asia in which America plays a minimal role.”

True enough, but his timing is off. All of this was happening in the region long before Mr Trump came into office. And many of Trump’s critics in America’s foreign policy class – both civilian and military – helped bring about the current state of affairs.  

With China, “de-escalation” and accommodation was the order of the day during the Obama administration. One couldn’t even refer to the PRC as an “adversary” without raising the ire of Susan Rice.

The Obama administration’s acquiescence to the PRC’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 (when Mr Trump was staging beauty contests and hiring and firing apprentices) gave the “go-ahead” for the PRC‘s island-building campaign and de-facto ownership of the South China Sea.  

The Americans then encouraged the Philippines to sue China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). After the court ruled overwhelmingly in Manila’s favor, Obama’s people left their Philippine friends hanging – to placate the PRC.

Mr Trump undermining US commitments? Hardly. And the American masterminds of the Scarborough and PCA fiascos, hopped up on chutzpah, are now strident critics of Mr Trump’s foreign policy

This double-whammy of erratic treatment demoralized a longstanding ally, and helped bring about Duterte and the Philippine swing towards China.

And the rest of the region noticed too.    

Mr Trump undermining US commitments? Hardly. And the American masterminds of the Scarborough and PCA fiascos, hopped up on chutzpah, are now strident critics of Mr Trump’s foreign policy.

As for North Korea, the Kim regime was not handed ICBMs and nuclear weapons on Trump’s inauguration day. Rather, the Koreans had been moving forward, mostly unmolested, since the days of the Clinton administration.

Mr Trump is now getting free advice from Christopher Hill, who led the US government’s failed negotiations with North Korea during the Bush administration – and shut down efforts to apply real pressure on the Kims.

And in Southeast Asia, Obama’s foreign policy team ostracized and humiliated Thailand’s leadership after a coup in 2014, while cozying up to Egyptian military officers after their own more violent coup. Irked by this erratic behavior, the Thais also swung towards the PRC.

Meanwhile, democratic Taiwan was never sure during the previous two administrations if it was a friend of the US, or a nuisance the Americans wished would disappear.

The Asia ‘pivot’ – suddenly a success?

Trump’s critics now claim Obama’s “Asia pivot” a considerable success – even though it was widely regarded as a gimmick by both allies and adversaries.

And the President is savaged for pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership – as if this started America’s decline in Asia. This overlooks Obama’s indifference towards passing TPP and Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the deal, not to mention the real damage done by Bill Clinton and others engineering China’s entry into the WTO years earlier.   

Ceding American primacy and influence in Asia to the PRC has been a bipartisan accomplishment of the US foreign policy class going back to the Nixon era.  

Yet none of this was pre-ordained. There were alternate courses of action, but proponents were too often dismissed and belittled as cranks, warmongers, and lacking “nuance.”

After 40 years of empirical evidence, the results are disappointing. Yet the people responsible for this lack of success invariably “fail upwards” – bouncing between government sinecures, academia, think tanks and Wall Street as administrations change.

President Trump was handed a terrible situation that others created – and has only had about ten months to do anything about it.

The jury is still out, but he’s finally putting pressure on North Korea – and China as well.

Then US President Barack Obama stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House on September 25, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

It is hard to tell if Trump will “go along to get along” with China – and one worries whenever he meets with Henry Kissinger or the Goldman Sachs alumni. But Trump has at least conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), opened trade investigations, and allows his staff to refer to China’s predatory economics. They even get to say PRC bullying of its neighbors and taking of territory is a bad thing.

He’s treating the Thais like allies and has improved relations with the Philippines. He even spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai, before getting cold feet.

He understands the need for a strengthened military – with a proper budget, though has much more to do in this regard.

Is Trump erratic? Amateur psychologists with international relations degrees say so. But the performance of the foreign policy class pre-Trump suggests even lovingly crafted policies, delivered in sonorous tones and passed by the “interagency” (to ensure nobody is responsible) can still be boneheaded.

Is Trump unpredictable? Perhaps. But that’s better than being known as a soft-touch who will always back down. The Filipinos might have even thought Obama unpredictable after being stiffed over Scarborough.

Trump’s critics are mostly decent people, but they underperformed. A little introspection and some regret might be in order.  

Instead, they’re now saying, “If they’ll only listen to us.” Well, unfortunately Trump’s predecessors did. Hopefully, Mr Trump won’t.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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