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For better or worse, America still calls the shots in Asia

Apr 17. 2017
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By Simon Tay
Special to The Nation

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Some expected a confrontation over trade and other issues when US President Donald Trump met Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping earlier this month. But there were no missed handshakes to upset protocol, as there had been when Trump met Germany’s Angela Merkel. There were no major breakthroughs either. 

The most concrete outcome will focus on Americans getting better access to China’s market for financial services and beef. A deadline of 100 days has been set and this is doable, given that negotiations on these issues began earlier with the Obama administration. If this is successful, President Trump could claim himself a deal-maker with China. 

But consider the bigger events outside the room, set in motion even as the two leaders sat down together. 

More is at stake. 

Just before he sat down for dinner with the Chinese leader, President Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria. Then the American navy deployed in waters off North Korea, after a series of provocative missile launches by Pyongyang. These muscular, unilateral moves have many American observers applauding. 

But others looking at Trump’s actions can find cause for concern. 

Many see the president’s decision as being an emotive reaction – his shock at seeing innocent victims, particularly “beautiful babies”, being killed. Former defence secretary William Cohen commented, “One strike doesn’t make a strategy.” There are questions of how effective the US strikes were, especially with no indication of any follow-up. 

Similarly, dispatching a US carrier-led group of ships warns Pyongyang to curb its nuclear ambitions or potentially face a similar missile strike. But a show of military strength offers no clear resolution to a long-brewing and complex problem. 

The US actions are not solutions, but messages – ones intended, moreover, not just for presidents Assad and Kim, but even more importantly for presidents Putin and Xi. Even if Trump has spoken positively about working with Putin, the Americans are not ready to cede Syria and the Middle East to Russia. On North Korea, Trump has said his administration will act with or without China’s agreement. 

This will surprise those who focused on Trump’s talk about putting “Americans first” and believed he would be less involved overseas. The actions relate instead to the idea of “Making America Great, Again” – of ensuring it is respected and even feared on the world stage, and is free to act unilaterally, if and when it chooses.

This has many implications for China’s claim to a larger place in the world, so long dominated by the US, and for Putin’s reassertion of Russian geo-political weight. Even as some praise the decisive actions taken, those who have valued American engagement with the world should pause and wonder about consistency and follow-up.

Will there be thoughtful and constructive policy under Trump, or instinctive and even knee-jerk reactions? 

Much depends on the temperament of the president as commander-in-chief, and who and what captures his eye and ear. Even leaving aside personalities, events of the recent past suggest that when domestic public opinion and political support shift, the Americans withdraw. Questions remain concerning American staying power, guts and guile to deal with challengers and complex problems. 

For now, these recent events show the US will negotiate or else use force – as Americans see fit. The Trump administration also shows that America retains the capability and the will to operate on several fronts and on different issues simultaneously. Let all of us be reminded that America can still call the shots – and the airstrikes – for better or worse. 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent think-tank. He also teaches international law at the National University of Singapore. 

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