US President Donald Trump. Photo: Flickr Commons
US President Donald Trump. Photo: Flickr Commons

Is US President Donald Trump, after 14 months in office, finally beginning to show his true form? In particular, as Trump becomes more and more populist, it could actually turn out to be good news for China – and bad news for the rest of Asia.

The two faces of Trump

There have always been two sides to Trump, the conservative-traditionalist, and the populist-nationalist. His conservative-traditionalist side is evident in his desire to cut taxes, slash regulations, and dismantle government programs. This aspect of Trump has been the most apparent in his first year in office, particularly in his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”).

While extremist, it was nevertheless familiar to most as more or less typical of contemporary Republicanism: government was bad (unless it was the military), taxes should always be cut, abortions should be banned, gun control is an assault on individual liberties, and so on and so on.

Trump has begun to indulge more and more in his darker and more dangerous populist-nationalist tendencies

In the past few months, however, Trump has begun to indulge more and more in his darker and more dangerous populist-nationalist tendencies. This is the nativist and xenophobic, racist, law-and-order Donald Trump. This is the guy who wants to crack down on the anarchic hellscapes that are our big cities, reverse LGBTQ rights, “build the wall!” and expel illegal immigrants (who are, we are told, the source of most of our crime).

This is also the Trump who deeply distrusts the federal bureaucracy, but not as a run-of-the-mill small-government conservative. Populist-nationalist Trump instead fears the so-called “deep state” – a vast, entrenched network of government bureaucrats, intelligence officers, professional military, etc, that is inherently hostile to Trump and his anti-government/anti-elitist policies, and which is actively conspiring against him.

The ur-Trump

Much of this actually is the ur-Trump, the original Trump who has been largely unchanged since the 1980s. Trump has always believed that other nations are taking advantage of the United States when it comes to trade (although 25 years ago it was Japan and not China who was eating our lunch).

Trump has long been racially prejudiced as well. In the late 1980s, he took out full page ads in several New York City newspapers demanding the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” a group of young men of color who, it turned out, were falsely convicted of rape (of a white woman). Even after they were released from prison, Trump still maintained that they were guilty and deserved their punishment.

Exit the adults

For the first year of his presidency, however, it seemed that this odious side of Trump would be corralled and kept in check by the so-called “adults in the room,” particularly secretary of state Rex Tillerson, national security adviser HR McMaster, and chief of staff John Kelly.

But over the past few months it is obvious that Trump is giving full vent to his populist-nationalist tendencies. He is shedding his administration of its conservative-traditionalists and replacing them with shrill ideologues, such as Michael Pompeo for Tillerson and John Bolton for McMaster. Kelly is probably going as well, sometime soon, and Trump may actually try to govern without a chief of staff.

Populist-nationalist Trump has broken with his own Republican party over its traditional support for free trade, waging trade wars with other countries and imposing huge, commerce-killing tariffs on China, despite these actions sending the stock market into free fall. And populist-nationalist Trump may tear up the multinational nuclear treaty with Iran and (if Bolton has his way) may yet undertake military action against North Korea.

How China benefits

It may seem counter-intuitive that China could benefit from a more populist Trump. He has, after all, launched a trade war against Beijing. Moreover, his intentions to drastically increase defense spending and build up the US military – one area where Trump’s conservative-traditionalist and populist-nationalist constituencies overlap – would seem to presage a more aggressive US, prepared to push back against a rising China.

Aside from trade issues, however, populist-nationalist Trump is remarkably blasé when it comes to the military-political-diplomatic emergence of China, even when it comes at America’s expense. Trump’s attention is almost entirely focused inward, picking fights with Democrats, congressional Republicans, even his own White House staff. Washington is increasingly AWOL from the world stage, ceding its leadership in such areas as trade, climate change, the United Nations, and the like.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Asia. Except for North Korea, the Asia-Pacific (or “Indo-Pacific,” as the Trump administration has tried to rebrand it) is hardly on populist Trump’s radar. He has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and reversed Obama’s “pivot toward Asia,” and replaced them with…nothing.

Into this vacuum has swept China, and this has been particularly palpable in Southeast Asia. Many Asean countries are increasingly within Beijing’s economic and diplomatic sway. The South China Sea is more and more dominated by the Chinese, and US freedom-of-navigation operations in the region seem only to magnify America’s impotence.

China’s sphere of influence

In fact, it might be time to acknowledge the reality that China is establishing a concrete sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. If the US is going to abrogate its traditional role of strategic stabilizer in the region, then perhaps China should take over. To be sure, many countries – from Japan to India to Australia – will not like it. However, Trump may be so drawn inwardly by his populist revolution that, despite his predilection for a giant US military committed to “winning,” China may even do a better job.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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