Trump’s opening chess move puts northeast Asia on notice

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

President Donald Trump has now made his first substantive move in foreign policy with broad repercussions for Northeast Asia, including both Korea and Japan. The consequences may be far-reaching.

By signing an executive order formally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump has signaled that he may actually carry out some of his bold campaign promises. He means to return jobs to American workers, to keep U.S. companies from going overseas in search of cheap labor, and to protect the American economy from neighbors near and far. That’s reason for dozens of governments to review their ties with the U.S., to consider what Trump might do next and to anticipate the impact on their own economies.

President Donald Trump, withVice President Mike Pence (left), White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, head of the White House Trade Council Peter Navarro and senior advisor Jared Kushner, in the Oval Office on Jan. 23. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Initially, of course, Trump’s signing the order was strictly theater. It won’t have any immediate effect. TPP had not become a reality. The concept of a dozen nations banded together engaging in tariff-free trade sounded great as advocated by President Obama, but members of both parties in the U.S. Congress saw too many flaws. Trump may be a Republican billionaire, but Democrats, including the leftist Bernie Sanders, assailed TPP as a device that might enrich business leaders but would leave too many workers in the cold.

Congress was not about to approve TPP. Nothing has happened, nothing has changed ― TPP was dead in the water, and no one’s life is altered by “withdrawal” since the U.S. had yet to join. Obama had proudly signed on as one of his signal achievements along with the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” also axed by Trump. These lightning strikes threaten to destroy whatever’s left of the Obama “legacy.”

Now, looking ahead, the U.S. faces deepening concerns in Asia. China has launched a far-reaching “economic partnership” that covers most of the region.

China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank should provide resources for hard-pressed countries to build up economically in China’s suffocating embrace. At the same time, China is asserting its sovereignty militarily over the South China Sea and challenging Japan’s hold over the Senkakus in the East China Sea.

Trump may wait before imposing protective tariffs ― or penalties ― on Chinese exports to the U.S., but the mere mention of protectionism deepens fears. Consider also that both Japan and South Korea enjoy huge trade surpluses with the U.S. even though they’re bound to the U.S. in separate military alliances.

Yes, Japan was an enthusiastic signatory of TPP, but who believed Tokyo would seriously welcome foreign products in competition with Japanese? Certainly some doors would open, but Japan would go on enjoying enormous trade surpluses while remaining politically, socially and culturally suspicious of foreign inroads.

As for South Korea, luckily Korean governments had the foresight to remain aloof of TPP. They never signed on. Under intense American pressure, had TPP gone into effect, Korea might finally have agreed ― but only for the sake of the U.S.-Korean alliance. As Korean officials asked, why should we be enthusiastic about TPP when we already have agreed on a Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA) ― a historic, carefully wrought achievement that took several years to negotiate?

Koreans do, however, have to worry about what Trump will do next. He’s promising to go after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), demanding revisions that will keep more jobs and money from going to Mexico and Canada at the expense of U.S. workers and U.S. companies.

While he’s at it, will he attack the KORUS-FTA, demanding faster, broader market opening and concessions? Americans have been complaining that the imbalance in U.S.-Korea trade has broadened since the KORUS-FTA took effect. What will Trump do to combat what some view as slow, reluctant Korean compliance with the spirit of the deal?

The demise of TPP is likely to heighten confrontation in Northeast Asia.

China will step up pressure on South Korea not to accept a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery as U.S. and South Korean military officials work furiously to get at least one into place while the current government remains in office in Seoul.

China’s President Xi Jinping might not want to do much about North Korea’s nuclear and missile program while THAAD remains an issue.

Then again, with the KORUS-FTA in the balance, South Korea may move closer to China.

Might Seoul sign on to Beijing’s alluring programs and promises? That’s one scenario at the dawn of this new era in U.S. dealings with Asia and the world.

Donald Kirk has been covering crises in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.

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