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Georgy Toloraya

Doctor of Economics, Professor of Oriental Studies, Director of the Asian strategy center at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences

There was a definite Asian feel to world politics in the beginning of November, with a series of major events being held in the Asia-Pacific countries and President Donald Trump making his first official visits to the countries of the region.

None of the events that took place received as much attention as the new “Trump Doctrine” on the formation of the Indo-Pacific region. This does not mean merely expanding the region westward from the Pacific Ocean. It is based on the attempt to include India in a single alliance intended primarily to contain China. Trump promoted the idea that the “maritime democracies” – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – are the bastion of the free world against continental China. Restoring the “quadro” format will decrease the importance of other regional groups. This appears to be another step towards gradually splitting the world into two blocs: Euro-Asian and Euro-Atlantic.

Trump proposed a new formula of “fair and balanced” mutual trade, which has absolutely no connection to the World Trade Organization’s rules. The United States has thus completed the full transformation from an ardent proponent of free trade and multilateral associations into an adherent of protectionism that uses a transactional approach to bilateral relations.

China has effectively become a “co-manager” in Asia alongside the United States. At the same time, Beijing has succeeded in forcing the United States to accept that role and seemingly voluntarily share the burden of responsibility for the situation in the region. Trump also finds himself in an advantageous position after the visit, since he has succeeded in smoothing out conflicts and advancing U.S. commercial interests. Russia is barely visible in this “big game,” and China’s focus is clearly elsewhere as it advances its own agenda.


There was a definite Asian feel to world politics last week, what with a series of major events being held in the Asia-Pacific and President Donald Trump making his first official visits to the countries of the region. Asia awaited Trump’s arrival with a sense of unease.

China expected Trump to make decisive statements about the “North Korean dossier” and the growing trade deficit between the two countries, and would attempt to demonstrate that Washington today is a hard-line negotiator. South Korea was concerned Trump would denounce the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement. Japan was worried the President of the United States would force them to enter negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement. Both Seoul and Tokyo feared that Trump, with his harsh rhetoric and unexpected gesticulations, would exacerbate the conflict surrounding North Korea’s nuclear missile programme and push the region towards military hostilities. In their turn, Vietnam and the Philippines were not pleased with the excessive attention the United States was paying to their trade deficits.

As usual, Trump’s behaviour was unpredictable and at times offensive for the host countries. In Asia, the issues of ceremony and protocol, showing public respect for interlocutors and politeness are of particular importance – so much so that they are sometimes valued more than the issues of substance. In that regard, Trump made a large number of mistakes in protocol. For instance, in South Korea, he wanted to fly into the demilitarized zone, which many feared could provoke North Korea into to intensifying its provocative actions. Fortunately, fog forced him to turn back. The White House twice confirmed the President’s participation in the East Asia Summit – he ended up leaving before it was over. Demonstrations were held everywhere Trump visited, although the turnout was not significant.

Of all the events that took place, none of them received as much attention as the new “Trump Doctrine” on the formation of the Indo-Pacific region. This does not mean merely expanding the region westward from the Pacific Ocean. It is based on the attempt to include India in a single alliance intended primarily to contain China. New Delhi has already made its choice, taking into account increasing contradictions with China both on traditional border issues and on the general inter-civilizational rivalry between Asia’s two largest powers. Trump promoted the idea that the “maritime democracies” – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – are the bastion of the free world against continental China. Restoring the “quadro” format will decrease the importance of other regional groups.

The United States has thus completed the full transformation from an ardent proponent of free trade and multilateral associations into an advocate of protectionism that uses a transactional approach to bilateral relations.

Clearly, Russia cannot ignore this issue, since it is evident whose side it is on in the confrontation. This appears to be another step towards gradually splitting the world into two blocs: Euro-Asian and Euro-Atlantic.

The economic component is also extremely significant. Trump proposed a new formula of “fair and balanced” mutual trade, which has absolutely no connection to the World Trade Organization’s rules. It all came to a head during Trump’s speech at the APEC Forum in Da Nang, where he announced that he would not allow anyone to “take advantage” of the United States anymore. The United States has thus completed the full transformation from an ardent proponent of free trade and multilateral associations into an advocate of protectionism that uses a transactional approach to bilateral relations. Trump said the United States would not enter any multilateral agreements, and bilateral agreements would be built on the principle of fairness and reciprocity.

In addition, Trump acted as a salesman, literally pushing Japan and South Korea into huge multi-billion dollar arms-purchasing deals. In China, protocols of intent were approved and agreements worth over $250 billion were achieved. Of course, not all of these deals will go through, but this was a symbolic event in and of itself.

For China, these events, and the meeting with the President of the United States in particular, were a success. Instead of exacerbating relations with the United States, Beijing appeared to meet Trump halfway and strengthen its own positions. Despite concerns, the reception afforded to Trump and the talks in Beijing were surprisingly impressive. Trump was stunned by the reverence with which the Chinese side treated him, placing him on the Emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City. China tried not to contradict the American side on the most sensitive issues, such as the trade deficit, bilateral economic problems and the North Korean dossier, and confirmed its concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear programme. Xi Jinping’s statements that further sanctions pressure should be applied to North Korea could not help but please the President. It should be noted that Trump’s speech at the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea was among his most restrained: he was harsh in his criticism of North Korea, but it can hardly be said that this criticism was undeserved. He managed to refrain from insults and provocative statements that could have prompted a negative response. We may assume that after a two-month break in North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests, the parties may be moving towards secret talks to resolve their contradictions.

In China, Trump outdid himself. He spoke approvingly of China’s tremendous achievements and pledged his “warm attitude” towards China, calling Xi Jinping a “highly respected and powerful representative of his people.” He even admitted that China’s “unfair trade practices,” as the media calls them, were made possible by the domestic problems in the United States, and it was natural for China to take advantage of the situation.

Russia is barely visible in this “big game,” and China’s focus is clearly elsewhere as it advances its own agenda.

Now that the United States has China’s back, China can essentially act as the region’s leader, the protector of free trade and the leader of regional formats. In the run up to the events, and while they were taking place, Beijing resolved a number of bilateral conflicts and settled the issue of the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system with South Korea. China decided to resume its relations with Seoul and, despite the lack of concessions on South Korea’s part, to lift its sanctions. Xi Jinping also succeeded in making significant progress in smoothing out contradictions with Vietnam on the South Sea problem: the parties signed 12 cooperation agreements in Hanoi. The conflict has thus transitioned into a latent phase. In addition, China reached an agreement with the ASEAN on opening negotiations on a legally binding code on conduct in the South China Sea, which the ASEAN has been seeking for 15 years. It appears likely that this decision will defuse the conflict with neighbouring countries.

What is the cumulative result of President Trump’s trips? It would seem that most of the actors won, although their public statements point to the contrary. Several American commentators have made remarks to the effect that Trump has “given ground” on his positions, and that his tour signifies a decreased interest on the part of the United States in Asian affairs. China has effectively become a “co-manager” in Asia alongside the United States. At the same time, Beijing has succeeded in forcing the United States to accept that role and seemingly voluntarily share the burden of responsibility for the situation in the region. Trump also finds himself in an advantageous position after the visit, since he has succeeded in smoothing out conflicts and advancing U.S. commercial interests. Russia is barely visible in this “big game,” and China’s focus is clearly elsewhere as it advances its own agenda.

One important result of the visit is that the Asia-Pacific countries attempted to take the fate of important multilateral agreements into their own hands. Popular opinion says that when the United States leaves a region, at least multilaterally, the vacuum is filled by China and Japan. The United States has slammed the door on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, seemingly condemning the agreement to death. It was generally believed that access to the U.S. market was the decisive factor for the TPP member countries agreeing to undertake rather steep obligations in trade and economic practices and domestic legislation. The bloc, however, survived. Japan played an active role during the events in Vietnam and the Philippines to assemble the ministers of trade of the respective countries and all but sign the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (this will apparently be the name of the format). Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau was not present at the negotiations, so not all the issues were agreed on. The TTP survived, and new talks are expected to be held.

Simultaneously, the China-driven project of establishing a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is moving forward. The partnership involves 16 countries, including ASEAN countries, China, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. Compared to the TPP, the standards are lower and easier to agree on. However, during the current round of talks, ministers failed to come to an agreement, and negotiations will continue next year. Like any other multilateral process, this one is not developing smoothly. For China, however, it is an important policy area geared not just towards the region, but towards the entire world. If we remember the One Belt One Road project, China essentially acts as a global integrator. And this is a reality that we should keep in mind.


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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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