The New Normal in East Asia
Category: Column By : Jusuf Wanandi Read : 118 Date : Monday, September 04, 2017 - 12:13:07

The global strategic developments caused by the Trump presidency, Brexit and other populist and nationalistic sentiments have created a new normal, which is “uncertainty.” We are uncertain what the next strategic developments would be globally and in East Asia.

Trump changes his policies with almost every tweet. He began by championing “America first,” throwing in doubt relations with close allies such as NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. He then belatedly affirmed NATO as important to the U.S., and as well as the East Asian alliance system (Japan, ROK, Australia and New Zealand).

It’s still unclear whether the international system—created by U.S. leadership—remains valid. Yet in his Warsaw speech on July 6, he declared the existing global system will be maintained, but aroused speculation by what he meant with the term “Western civilization.” Predictably, Trump can change that again, sooner or later.

A case in point is U.S. relations with China: first he claimed China was cheating on trade, and manipulated its currency. After he met President Xi, he said the U.S. could work with China, including helping against DPRK nuclear threats. Trump then stated Xi had not done enough against the DPRK, and started to put pressure on China. He sold Taiwan more defensive armaments, sanctioned Chinese banks helping the DPRK, and sent U.S. naval vessels around the South China Sea islands claimed by China.

China, wisely, didn’t react too much, because Trump’s overall East Asian strategy remains unclear—including North Korea. This year, Trump should come to Hanoi for the APEC Summit and to Manila for the East Asia Summit. Hopefully, he clarify his policies. One surety is that Trump is very negative on trade, as immediately quitted TPP.

East Asia’s security depends on its economic development which is assisted by intra-Asian trade and trade with the world. Given Trump’s policy on trade, East Asia should to do what the EU did, and establish free trade agreements with Japan, Canada and possibly with ASEAN. East Asia itself needs a new free trade arrangement to replace TPP. For now, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is the only instrument available, and RCEP should be promoted.

This is a must do, because a trade war started by Trump would be a calamity for ASEAN. RCEP should be one of the main answers to overcome any drastic changes in trade relations in East Asia. As it is, China’s support to get RCEP finalized is critical. To oversee regional strategic developments, the East Asia Summit is the only mechanism that is rather dependable, and should be developed further. Here again ASEAN, supported by big powers members, should play a critical role. It has to upgrade the small ASEAN Secretariat, establish a high-level group of sherpas to support and serve the leaders, and invite the members’ think tanks to develop new ideas.