17/05/2017 10:04 AM AEST | Updated 17/05/2017 10:05 AM AEST

Trump's 'America First' Policy Is Putting Asia Last

As the U.S. stands apart, China will fill the void.

ferrantraite via Getty Images
The U.S. may want continued dominance in Asia, but it is not willing to pony up with trade deals.

Donald Trump has put a cat amongst the Asian pigeons with his controversial "America First" foreign policy and there are many in the Asia Pacific region who fear the consequences of a decline in U.S. economic and diplomatic power in Asia.

They are right to be fearful, as they see their main ally turning away from our region. However, there is a way out. In the face of weakening U.S. primacy, Asian nations can play the smart card and poise themselves to economically and militarily hedge between the booming China and the declining U.S.

The Trump Administration's America First policy will ultimately harm America's dominance in Asia. The policy will steer the U.S. towards a narrow, more selfish, set of goals, while long-standing allies are being left to fend for themselves.

Trump also plans to take a less compassionate and more transactional approach to international engagements. His patriotic preference is evident throughout the policy. Its posture -- veering from over six decades of U.S. policy -- suggests less protection of the regional common good.

This American First rhetoric and ensuing policy will result in a loss of American credibility and support from countries in the region. These elements are crucial to the U.S's dominance, as seen in Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's warning to Trump that the U.S's credibility would be undermined if it withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

As countries begin to feel vulnerable in the absence of strong U.S. involvement in the region, China will fill the void. Asian nations will begin looking to China for leadership and support, further weakening U.S. dominance.

Asian nations are now tasked with making a judgement about how credible they believe a Trump-governed U.S. is. Should they seek closer ties with China, or remain close with a potentially less reliable, but militarily dominant, U.S?

Asia stands at a regional crossroads in its future.

This dilemma became more difficult with Trump's withdrawal from the TPP in January this year. The withdrawal will single-handedly reduce America's role as Asia's economic leader and rulemaker in the 21st century. This is problematic for Australia, which is one of the biggest beneficiaries of U.S. primacy.

The TPP is the most integral component of Trump's hard-line stance on free trade. The deal, with 11 Asian nations, would have cemented America's economic dominance and leadership in 21st century Asia. Withdrawing from it leaves America's leadership role in doubt.

Furthermore, without this wide-reaching engagement and a free trade outlook, the U.S's ability to dominate the rule-making process -- a critical factor in its current regional primacy -- will be restricted.

Instead of the TPP, Trump has expressed his intention to construct bilateral trade agreements with individual countries which had signed onto the TPP. However, this alternative comes with some noteworthy disadvantages: firstly, constructing 11 unique trade deals are far harder than just one and secondly, managing 11 vastly different trade arrangements would be extremely difficult.

While some Asian nations may still strike good bilateral trade deal with the U.S, not having that interconnectivity with 11 other Asian nations, afforded by the TPP, is detrimental to Australia's trade prospects.


Adam Lockyer: A Cold War On Australia's Doorstep

Andrew Reynolds: What The South China Sea Ruling Means For Australia

Meanwhile, with the U.S's TPP withdrawal, China will become more central to Asian trade and economics. It has already begun exhibiting an increased openness to free trade, pushing forward with its own trade partnership, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The Asian powerhouse is also bolstering its bilateral ties. For example, in late March 2017 it strengthened Chinese-Australian economic ties by increasing the amended the Chinese-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA). Partnerships like these, in the absence of the TPP, could seriously undermine America's economic leadership in the region.

Despite Trump's hardline measures, one cannot deny that the direction he will take the U.S. over the next few years remains highly unpredictable and conflicted. Last year he heavily criticised the U.S's alliances with Japan and South Korea, only for Defence Secretary James Mattis to visit these countries this year to "soothe their fears" of abandonment. This soothing came along with a US$54 billion increase in defence spending to bolster U.S. military presence in Asia.

However, a strong military presence can only get one so far. Despite this increased military reassurance, Asian nations are entitled to fear the decline of U.S. primacy in Asia. The U.S. is still an integral military player and a vital economic partner for Asian nations. The ideal future for many in Asia would be an Asia which continues to be dominated, both militarily and economically, by the U.S. Unfortunately, this is not the reality we face.

Instead, we face a conflicted United States in Asia: A president who is making a concerted effort to economically and diplomatically withdraw from the region, yet at the same time doing everything in his power to remain militarily dominant.

Asia stands at a regional crossroads in its future. Now is the time for nations to delicately juggle both their steadfast U.S. military support, and burgeoning Chinese economic ties. Through astutely balancing themselves in this dynamically changing environment, Asia can overcome its fears of a U.S. decline in Asia and stride successfully through the 21st century.