AS President Donald Trump of the United States has just embarked on his first substantial Asia trip, it would have been normal for international and regional pundits to ponder on his potential pronouncement of a renewed Asia-Pacific strategic policy, since the “pivot to Asia” or “rebalancing” strategy propounded by the previous Obama administration has all but been scrapped, or at least not pursued with any degree of enthusiasm by the Trump administration.
But, alas, the norm is perhaps out of the norm in this case. For the Trump administration does not seem to care or bother too much about foreign policy or grand international design at all. The American president’s policy attention, and that of most members of his senior-most circle, appears to be trained exclusively on the relentless pursuit of his “America First” campaign slogan. Instead of negotiating broader and deeper free trade agreements with more countries around the world so that more Americans and their counterparts in other countries can enjoy cheaper goods and services, Trump is obsessed with “bringing manufacturing back to America,” posing in the White House every few days with sundry foreign CEOs who promise to relocate their factories to America, or to register their headquarters there.
When Trump did venture out of America, like during his last trip to Europe, instead of acting the part of the resolute leader of the free world, he assumed the part of the nagging chief debt collector, haranguing European countries for not shouldering their (financial and other) share in the US-formed and -led North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO). Foreign policy, and America’s crucial role in the world in general, simply does not register as important in the presidential frame of mind.
Instead, US foreign policy appears to be sporadic, uncoordinated and reactive at best since Trump took office. When the ever maverick North Korea launched yet another long-range missile or conducted another nuclear test, or even just bragged about attacking Guam, Trump reacted with colorful and similarly bombastic language of his own, often in short Twitter messages. The US president and his secretary of state also appear to contradict each other in their public utterances, with Trump rebuking Tillerson (again) in social media.
Some pundits have noticed the recent use of the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of “Asia Pacific” to describe this part of the world by many in the Trump administration, including Trump himself, and surmised at the subtle potential shift of US strategic policy in the region. I frankly think it rather pathetic that the Trump administration is so nowhere near a clear and coherent articulation of its global or regional foreign and strategic policies, that we have to resort to parsing nuances in geopolitical nomenclature to remotely guess at what could possibly could be the Trump administration’s global or regional intentions, or if there will ever be one. Even if “Indo-Pacific” were to encompass the Indian Ocean in addition to the traditional Pacific Ocean only, it would still be only a reflection of existing US presence in these regions, with for example the US air base at Diego Garcia, some remote Indian Ocean island. The rapprochement with India after decades of somewhat chilly ties is also nothing new, and dates back to at least the Obama administration, when a nuclear technology transfer deal was signed, testifying to the already resuscitated US-India relations.
But the North Korea issue is indeed front and center in this part of the world. As the trials of the two accused Kim Jong-nam assassins get underway, Malaysians are nowadays vividly reminded again of the relentlessness of the North Koreans in pursuing regime preservation, even to the reckless detriment of the interest of other countries, such as the taking of hostages of Malaysian diplomats in Pyongyang. Trump has to seek consensus among the major powers in the region most of which he will be visiting, in order for them to not react differently when concerted efforts are being applied to resolve the crisis.
The US-Philippine relationship has perhaps not been as close as just slightly more than a year before, despite the two being treaty allies. As both presidents pride themselves in being straight talkers, they would have to talk straight to each other in private to try to resolve what are actually considered differences that have drawn the two countries apart, and what would be some unifying elements that could help patch them up. Closer joint counterterrorism efforts come immediately to mind.
Trump must stop speaking to foreign audiences as if he is still on the American domestic campaign trail. If America is still willing to shoulder the heavy global responsibility of being a superpower, then its leader must enunciate the intention and steps for doing so, for none seems to be forthcoming at the moment, and many are left wondering how much longer this region can remain adrift.