Is Trump pushing the US to isolation in this region?

In this picture taken on October 6, 2017, US President Donald Trump leaves after a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC., U.S. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

The US under President Donald Trump’s leadership is looking more and more isolated in a region calling for the promotion of free trade and the easing of tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

In defiance against economic protectionism

On Saturday, Asia-Pacific leaders successfully revived the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – initially thought to be dead after the US pulled out in January. Remaining member nations have "agreed on the core elements" of a deal at the side-lines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam on Saturday.

The trade agreement has been rebranded and is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The US under Trump’s administration has been notorious for its abandonment of free trade principles and a starling inwards-looking, “America First” policy. Trump was the lone protectionist voice over the weekend which saw China – a country with a centrally planned economy – embrace the virtues of neoliberal economics by promoting free trade and multilateral deals.

In a related development, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Hong Kong signed a free trade agreement (FTA) – this time, at the side-lines of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila.

"In the face of protectionistic sentiments in other parts of the world, (this agreement is) in fact a loud and clear vote from all of us here for free and more open trade," Edward Yau, Hong Kong's Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse (AFP) during the signing ceremony.

The deal – first negotiated in 2014 – was signed along with an investment agreement which seeks to provide the region better accessibility to the Chinese market. It covers areas including intellectual property rights, sanitary measures and customs procedures.

"We send a strong message to the world of our outward-oriented drive and economic resolve towards cooperation," Philippine Trade Secetary Ramon Lopez, whose nation this year holds ASEAN's rotating chairmanship was quoted as saying by AFP.

Stability in the Korean Peninsula

High on the agenda at the upcoming ASEAN Summit will also be the threat of North Korea which has been ramping up its nuclear and missile tests of late.

North Korean nuclear tests in comparison to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Whilst on his visit to Vietnam for the APEC Summit, Trump warned leaders to “not be held hostage to a dictator's twisted fantasies" – in reference to North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un. He also urged them to pose a united front against the hermit kingdom’s nuclear threats and called for China to take on a bigger role in handling the North.

Trump’s words at such events sends a strong, no nonsense signal against Pyongyang – sometimes a little too strong. In retaliation to his speeches, Pyongyang recently called Trump a “warmonger” – which is ironic considering their own acts of belligerence.

However, what is most puzzling is Trump’s personal and unfiltered musings on Kim Jong-Un on Twitter. In the latest trade of barbs, Trump sarcastically referred to Kim Jong-Un as “short and fat” after the North Korean state media called him a “lunatic old man”.

The constant name-calling between Trump and Pyongyang borders on immaturity and it is scary when one pauses to think that what bellies such actions – the threat of nuclear war – isn’t remotely funny and calls for strong leadership instead of childish buffoonery.

“Trump says things that stimulates bad behaviour from North Korea. North Korea needs to be stopped. A sharp message from the US is helpful, but it could be delivered in a statesmanly way.” Distinguished Fellow at the Stockholm based Institute for Security and Development Policy, Lars Vargö opined in an email reply to The ASEAN Post.

Trump would find himself in similar company when he meets Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who is similarly outspoken. The latter previously leveraged on ASEAN’s warmer ties with North Korea to manage tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s actions are throwing further doubt to America's global leadership position. With the tides of international relations seemingly upended, ASEAN’s adaptation towards this situation will be key for its continued survival.


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