Waiting for the Trump Card

Donald Trump – a name everyone has already heard too many times – has signed a series of controversial executive orders in recent weeks. Amongst them, he reinstated a ‘global gag rule’ previously lifted by Obama in 2009, that bans NGOs funded by USAID from discussing abortion.

He also finished his first week by silencing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture from talking to the public and press, freezing grants and budgets, and nominating Scott Pruitt – a man responsible for fighting the EPA’s environmental regulations – as the new head of the EPA. He drastically altered the EPA website as well, threatening international commitments to combat climate change by rejecting the notion that carbon pollution is a leading cause of global warming.

It is slightly terrifying when the ‘Leader of the Free World’ denies the existence of the leading cause of climate change, isn’t it?

But all of these plays have been very local. The one move, however, that sparked a large international outcry, especially here in Australia, was his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Most controversially, the TPP contains the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause, which ‘enables foreign investors from TPP states to sue the governments … if those governments act in a way that harms their interests’, as explained by Jess Hill from ABC. While Australia already has ISDS agreements with other countries, this would have been its first with the United States.

According to Yoshiji Nagami, one of Japan’s foreign ministers, on a global scale the TPP would have yielded some benefits. He believes that the TPP would have delivered US$77 billion to America and US$105 billion to Japan by 2025. Meanwhile, the estimated loss for China from not being a member of the TPP would have been US$35 billion.

The other cause for outcry was caused by the geopolitical impact the agreement would have had. In particular, the TTP was intended to shape how the West influences the Asia-Pacific region. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) interpreted the intention of the TPP as an attempt at ‘boosting US power and excluding China’s power.’

The trade agreement would have allowed the US to ‘set the rules’ of trade in the Asia-Pacific region. The US would be able to tap into new markets in Asia to export their goods and grow their economy. Additionally, academics in political science at the University of Washington have commented that ‘enlarged economic integration [such as with Asian countries] could discourage war because it makes war so costly.’ As such, the trade deal would have been very beneficial for the West as it included Vietnam and Malaysia, enticing them to orient their international policy more towards the US. Indeed, ‘Economic diplomacy of the United States goes hand in hand with military strategies’, and would thus have provided potential for the US to establish more operational bases in the region, deterring further Chinese expansionism.

So now that America is not part of the TPP, what happens next?

Academic Jeffrey Wilson from the Asia Research Centre (ARC) claimed in an interview with ABC that ’many countries in the [Asia-Pacific] region made concessions during the TPP negotiations, particularly around issues like environmental protection, labour rights, anti-corruption and transparency issues.’

He believes that ‘If America isn’t in the deal, a many of those countries will see the opportunity to remove many of the elements they weren’t entirely comfortable agreeing to in the first place.’

This has already been observed, with Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo seeking to ‘lock in the benefits’ of the TPP with remaining signatories. Meanwhile, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, believes that without the US the entire TPP is ‘meaningless’.

Instead, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), with key players China and India – but no United States – is much more likely to be signed.

The RCEP can be considered of vital importance to China as it will build up regional cooperation, combat US-China strategic distrust, and provide political and defensive backing for ASEAN states, led by ‘traditional cooperation history’.

What is significant is that now the TPP is off the cards, China will set the rules in Asia, while American economic influence will dwindle. The fear is that with dwindling economic influence, defence agreements may also suffer.

Due to the United States being the only country able to provide credible protection to its allies, strong relationships with the United States are vital to the free world. Trump’s dissatisfaction with the TPP may later re-appear as dissatisfaction with current defence pacts in Europe and Oceania, endangering the current global order and balance of power.

This fear is explainable by Trump’s recent comments to The Times on NATO, claiming it is ‘obsolete’ yet also ‘very important’ to him.

The only calming moments are John Mattis’ comment that NATO is ‘the most successful military alliance … maybe ever.’ Additionally, in Trump’s most recent call to NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, he promised ‘strong support’ for the alliance, partially negating his earlier remarks.

So at least the NATO card still seems in play.

So what remains? The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) promises us no guarantee of the protection that NATO does, as it was designed by the US with wiggle room for itself in mind. Other defence treaties with Japan or Korea appear strong, but have ultimately failed to significantly stop Chinese expansionism.

With this in mind, we must question Trump’s next moves. How will he influence the EU and their proposed trade agreement with the US: the TTIP? What will his commitment to NATO really be? And how will he deal with Russia and China in Ukraine and the South China Sea respectively?

And what will be his Trump Card – the one that makes the whole world shake to the core?

We all wait patiently as Donald shuffles his deck.

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