Trump/Pence Presidency: One possible Scenario for Asia

Mr. Trump has won the election; this is a quick note as a way to think through what this means for Asia. I find that if the US disengages from Asia, as seems to be the trajectory of Trump’s rhetoric, that China could fill in the vacuum in the region. The TPP looks dead, and in its place could be a China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade treaty (explained below). There still are further uncertainties to do with the domestic politics of South Korea and Japan, and Indonesia’s response. Even though China becomes the regional power, countries still have options available to them.

In the last moments before the election, Mr. Trump had accused Singapore of stealing jobs from the United States. This statement could be easily disregarded as rhetoric on the campaign trail; however, now that Mr. Trump has become the President-elect, those words have to be taken seriously.

In the same talk, Mr. Trump had also named China and India as countries that had stolen jobs from the United States. He has also labeled NAFTA, and the TPP as terrible trade agreements. All of that might point to the direction that he would be anti-trade, and perhaps anti-Asia.

But these are just guesses. We don’t know how different Mr. Trump the candidate will be, from Mr. Trump as POTUS. This is the first thing we must admit. We might not know, but we can still make plans and scenarios, and think through implications. I will particularly be focusing on what happens if Mr. Trump disengages from the Asia-Pacific.

The death of the TPP will mean that China will seize the moment and construct an economic architecture for Asia. One candidate for this is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that includes the ASEAN countries, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.

(Update 22nd June 2017 — The jury is out on this. China is not pushing for RCEP; the Belt and Road Initiative — is not really a framework for economic cooperation. Maybe wait till the 2017 Party Congress to see what happens?)

Perhaps the disengagement is also militarily, with a reduced commitment to the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, and also weakening ties with Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Should this happen, China will also be stepping into the security vacuum. Japan’s and South Korea’s reaction to a possible Chinese-based security umbrella is unknown; it will depend on the domestic circumstances of the countries. Indonesia is another unknown when it comes to China. Indonesian leaders think of Indonesia as a power-to-be, and I haven’t looked into China-Indonesia relations as much.

(11 November update: Trump/Pence had assured South Korea of security guarantees. Maybe the security guarantees of East Asia will hold. Still waiting for fate of the TPP.)

At this point I want to highlight that:

  1. This is just one scenario;
  2. I AM NOT PREDICTING. These are just sketches, broad directions, of the trajectory of events.

A greater Chinese influence in the region is not a straightforward deal. Malaysia and Thailand, might find that their populations might not be ready for the social, and economic flows that come with China’s influences. That will be backlashes from the ethno-nationalist segments of their elites.

Countries, even small ones such as Singapore, will always have options. They do not have to accept passively China’s hegemony in the region; they can build ties with each other, or with a major country, such as India. They can go even further afield, and build ties.