Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has compared Beijing's actions in the South China Sea to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Image source: The Canberra Times/ J. Scott Applewhite

With Donald Trump in the White House, what now for the Asia-Pacific?

22 January 2017

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Acting Director, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs

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Will Trump slap tariffs on Chinese imports, sparking a trade war between the world’s two largest economies? Will he forge a new great power alignment with Moscow, leaving Beijing out in the cold strategically? Will he abandon free-riding Asian allies and encourage them to develop their own nuclear arsenals? Or is all of Trump’s bluster geared toward putting Beijing off balance as he seeks to strike a better “deal” for America with a rising China?

The truth is that we simply don’t know what a Trump presidency will mean for Indo-Pacific stability. And we probably won’t know until the incoming Trump administration confronts its first major crisis here.

But, that crisis is already looming. Tensions have been heating up around this region’s traditional flashpoints. Trump’s election adds further fuel to those flames.

He is the first president-elect to have had contact with the leadership of Taiwan since China and America normalised diplomatic relations in the 1970s. Trump has also suggested that the so-called “One China” policy that has successfully guided Washington’s approach towards the thorny Taiwan problem during the period since normalisation is back up for negotiation. The ire of Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, has been raised in response.

Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has portrayed Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea as analogous to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and suggests that America would block Chinese access to islands here. Chinese state-owned media warned of “war” in response to this pronouncement.

North Korea’s equally unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-Un, recently revealed the impending test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. If successful, this could give Pyongyang the capacity to strike America with a nuclear weapon. Responding to Kim’s claims, Trump tweeted: “It won’t happen.”

A crisis around any of these hotspots would have substantial ramifications for Australia. Were conflict to erupt, Trump would almost certainly call for Australian involvement. If we refused, this could spell the end of the US-Australia alliance. If we acquiesced, significant Australian blood and treasure would need to be spilled and spent.

The good news is that Beijing and Washington have in recent decades developed a remarkably good track record of crisis management in the Indo-Pacific. This has been the result of three factors.

First, channels for dialogue and communication between government departments and agencies across the two countries have deepened. There currently exist, for instance, more than 90 official dialogues between the US and China.

Second, crisis management at the military-to-military level has also evolved. A clear example of this occurred in December 2013 when the USS Cowpens and a Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy vessel came close to collision in the waters of the South China Sea. The vessels’ commanders were able to defuse the incident through “bridge-to-bridge” communications. Efforts to avoid such events occurring and escalating have also continued, such as the two memorandums of understanding that were signed by Presidents Obama and Xi on the sidelines of the APEC Summit of December 2014.

Third, crisis management has been possible because of the high level of familiarity – often built up over a considerable period – that senior officials on each side have had with one another.

Under a Trump presidency, however, much of the architecture that has supported successful management will either stall or be pulled down.

There are also serious questions surrounding President Trump’s temperament and how he might perform in a major crisis. Doubts exist over the level of expertise and experience of those who will serve around him.

This is not to say that Trump and those in his administration will have no capacity to learn during their time in office. History suggests that President Kennedy’s ability to handle the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, was aided by his botched invasion of the Bay of Pigs during the previous year.

It is also conceivable that the potentially unstable nature of Trump could prove advantageous in a crisis situation. Another of Trump’s predecessors, Richard Nixon, very consciously sought to convey the impression that the American President was erratic in his decision-making as a method for staring down the Soviets during the Cold War.

While there remains much we don’t know about a Trump presidency, we can be fairly sure that the 45th President of the United States is not a Kennedy or a geopolitician in the Nixon mould. Moreover, the trouble with this so-called “madman theory” in the Indo-Pacific of 2017 is that a number of leaders – namely Kim Jong-Un and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte – seem also to see the strategic potential of madness.

Canberra will be watching closely for early warning signs of an emerging crisis in the Indo-Pacific. The stakes for Australia have rarely been higher.

Read the original article by Dr Brendan Taylor on The Canberra Times website.

Updated:  23 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team