Chinese whispers with Trump’s Asian foreign policy

Approx Reading Time-12With witting or unwitting misinterpretation comes great danger, especially about the potential foreign policy of Donald J Trump.


It has recently been reported (and many publishers are adopting this trend) that Donald Trump is a danger to Australia, and South East Asia in general.

One piece in question appears ever so excited that the gravitational pull of Planet Trump finally sucked little old Australia into its orbit (replete with a ever-so-clever cartoon), that it may have even fallen victim to confirmation bias. Unfortunately, this type of “me too, me too” exuberance may have allowed opinion to colour fact.

In my view, pieces like this are itching to be yet another voice in the inane vacuum that is the asinine anti-Trump chatter-sphere. It’s easy to throw flesh to the hyenas; it matters not if the meat is rotten.

Claims that Trump is a danger to Australia and Asia rest on statements like this:

Donald Trump told the New York Times that, as President, he would ‘perhaps’ lay claim to one of the disputed islands of the South China Sea for the US. This is idiotic and potentially incendiary in one of the world’s most flammable strategic tinder boxes. The US would be transformed instantaneously from being the guarantor of stability to being a great force for instability.

Before we unpack it, let’s review what Donald Trump actually said in his NYT interview.

Haberman – …about the South China Sea. How would you counter assertiveness over those islands?

Trump – …you have to speak to Japan and other countries, because they’re affected far greater than we are.

Haberman – But would you claim some of those reef scenarios to try to build our own military?

Trump – Perhaps, but we have great economic – and people don’t understand this – but we have tremendous economic power over China.

Sanger – So you would cut into trade in return.

Trump – No, I would use trade to negotiate… Would I go to war? Look, let me just tell you. There’s a question I wouldn’t want to answer. Because I don’t want to say I won’t or I will or – do you understand that, David? That’s the problem with our country. A politician would say, ‘Oh I would never go to war,’ or they’d say, ‘Oh I would go to war.’ I don’t want to say what I’d do because, again, we need unpredictability.

I find it extraordinary that the singular journalistic take away from the above exchange is that Donald Trump “would ‘perhaps’ lay claim to one of the disputed islands of the South China Sea.”

What Trump actually said, as is plainly intended by his comments (stated both implicitly and explicitly), was that an essential element of any negotiation with China (in relation to their claim over the disputed islands in the South China Sea) is leaving the threat of military action on the table.

Trump said his first order of business would be to consult with relevant stakeholders (which would mean us), and step two would be the use of economic leverage in achieving a suitable outcome. So what was the relevance of Donald’s comment: “perhaps”? Trump was leaving the military option on the table, thus enhancing the US negotiating position. Anybody with even a Wikipedia-understanding of international relations should be cognisant of the concept “gunboat diplomacy”.

If leaving the threat of military action on the table is what so offends the author’s sensibilities, why not say what he really means to say: “the United States should disband its entire military apparatus.”?

After all, if the US is not prepared to use their military for an intervention or hard-force capacity, why have a military? Why have 8,000 tanks, 13,000 aircraft, 19 aircraft carriers, 62 destroyers and 1,500,000 military personnel if you’re never going to use it? If it’s just for show, to what does the “show” refer? Even the most naïve observer can ascertain it’s a “show” about the use of force.

However, if the use of force is never to be considered, and (to be inferred from the recent report) never even to be mentioned – then surely the “show” is a paper tiger, and rendered utterly meaningless? So you may as well break it all down and pack it all up.

If articles like these follow the logic of their own conclusions, it would be clear that it is the piece’s prescription that imperils Australia and every other nation in South East Asia – and not Donald Trump’s. Indeed, the author’s notion of foreign policy is one that would “instantaneously from being the guarantor of stability to being a great force for instability.”

If China does not believe that the US might “perhaps” use military force against them – what are we talking about? – We may as well give them (not that they are ours to give – but you take my point here) the islands this afternoon. Why have we been playing hanky-panky with the Spratlays this whole time?

Is the suggestion that China should have the islands? If so, please come out and say so – and then explain to China’s neighbours and the Australian public how enlarging China’s sphere of influence and encouraging their regional hegemony makes us, or our South East Asian allies, safer?

If that’s not what the article is saying, then what is it saying?

I’ve not written this because journalistic probity matters sine qua non, or because it’s sport to make other writers look foolish. I wrote this because very few people will read the original transcript of the interview. It wasn’t about a Kardashian or the latest on-trend hairdo; it was an article purporting to provide insight into the man who could realistically become the next President of the United States. These distorted tidbits, and all of the pieces just like it, could very well spin around in the cut-and-paste vortex of the 24-hour news cycle – get re-written, referenced, recycled and regurgitated until this impression of Trump’s foreign policy becomes as much a part of the contemporary discourse as “George W Bush, the warmonger.”

Then when Trump pays a visit to Australia thousands of well-meaning citizens protest and apply pressure on our government to engage and respond in a certain way – on the basis of what?

That’s the real danger to our national security – not the word “perhaps.”


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