Why Donald Trump’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ dream could end badly
The odds are more on the side of Donald Trump starting a trade war than seeing his Indo-Pacific dreams come true
If Hollywood studios are smart, they’ll order up a sequel to the 1986 film Gung Ho before Donald Trump beats them to it.
The Ron Howard-directed comedy is seeing somewhat of a revival on late-night television in East Asia as President Trump prods Japan to build more cars in the US rather than exporting them. Few films have better, and more animatedly, depicted the cultural divide between economic superpowers.
Only, the sequel Trump envisions may veer into horror-show territory as he returns to a scandal-plagued White House. There, two plot lines are likely to collide in the weeks ahead: Trump’s desperation for a win, any win, and the mid-1980s lens through which he views Asia’s economic trajectory.
The common thread as the dealmaker-in-chief made his way through Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing is a dearth of deliverables for the 38% of Americans who still support his mercantilist agenda. Some goodies, possibly for defence contractors, but zero on the huge, job-creating bilateral trade deals Trump told voters would be so easy to make. Trump also was disappointed on the North Korea front. That’s surely grated on Trump’s team on the long flight home.
But along with Trump’s trade sequel, we now have a spin-off to consider: his “Indo-Pacific” dream. It’s a concept Japan’s Shinzo Abe has been pushing for a decade—a blurring of the divisions between South Asia, East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Trump loves it because it allows him to connect the dots between democratic governments from New Delhi to Tokyo to Jakarta to Canberra as a means of encircling China.
Same problem, different phraseology, though. The Indo-Pacific concept is useful indeed. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum always seemed a bit useless without India, Asia’s No. 3 economy. But trouble arises as Trump says he’ll ink bilateral trade deals with Indo-Pacific powers, not a broader economic grouping. So, really, what’s the point?
When Trump entered office, he inherited a sweeping deal covering 40% of world gross domestic product. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) gave Trump leverage over China’s Xi Jinping. It also armed him with olive branches he could’ve extended to India, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and others. Pulling out of TPP made Xi’s year, and may go down as Trump’s worst economic decision.
That will come into greater focus as Trump’s Indo-Pacific dream veers toward nightmare territory. In his 300 days in office, Trump also reneged on the Paris climate-change accord, scrapped the five-year-old Korea-US free trade deal, moved to decertify the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, threatened to pull out of the 28-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement and hinted the US might flout World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.
Which Asian leader, in their right mind, would expect the Trump White House to negotiate a bilateral deal in good faith? In Beijing, Trump pulled a “Michael Kinsley gaffe”, which is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say. Trump did so when, looking at Xi, he said: “I don’t blame China” for tactics he once characterized as “raping” American workers. “After all,” Trump said, “who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
In other words, we’re all out to pull fast ones on unsuspecting partners. Yet not all “bad” trade deals are bad for America. US leaders know what they’re doing when they give, say, Korean automakers a slight leg-up in talks. Sometimes it’s wise to cede some ground to serve higher aspirations—like Korea’s support for US priorities in North Asia. Trump’s zero-sum worldview, one laid bare by his Beijing comments, makes such give-and-take impossible.
Even before Beijing, Trump reminded India’s Narendra Modi, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo why his questionable relationship with the truth makes this a buyer-beware moment. On 6 November, Trump said: “What’s very important is that the prime minister of Japan is going to be purchasing massive amounts of (American) military equipment, as he should.” That, Trump crowed, amounts to “a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan”.
Not exactly, Japan retorted. “We’ll proceed with the existing plan, without worrying about the president’s remarks,” a top defence ministry official told Jiji Press.
Trump’s Asia trip betrayed the mid-1980s vibe that informs this White House’s worldview. That was a time when tariffs and exchange-rate shifts could move economic mountains. It also was a moment when Asia-is-eating-our-lunch hysteria was fodder for major Hollywood productions like Gung Ho and Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun.
Couple this stuck-in-the-80s crouch with a presidency dogged by scandals and fears of indictments and you can see why the odds of a trade boom are so low. The odds are more on the side of Trump starting a trade war than seeing his Indo-Pacific dreams come true. Hardly the happy ending global investors hoped to see.
William Pesek, based in Tokyo, is a former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.
His Twitter handle is @williampesek