What should Asia expect from Trump after the US midterms?

The US president is likely to pursue deals with China and North Korea which the Democrats are likely to back.

Following the midterm election trade policy continuity in Asia, with the grudging support of House Democrats, is likely, writes Feingold [Reuters]
Following the midterm election trade policy continuity in Asia, with the grudging support of House Democrats, is likely, writes Feingold [Reuters]

Much like the rest of the world, Asian countries carefully watched the US midterm elections, anxious about how its outcome would affect US foreign policy. Although the Democrats taking the House of Representatives prompted much speculation about a congressional gridlock, this is unlikely to influence the policy direction President Donald Trump has pursued on Asia.

In fact, so far one of the few foreign policy issues that the Democratic and Republican parties have agreed on have been ones concerning Asia.

Trade deal with China

In the past, Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to be elected House speaker, and President Trump have had major disagreements but the few policies they have agreed on have included a tougher stance on trade with China.

In this sense, the House is unlikely to be a major source of opposition to Trump’s trade policies and, in fact, might end up supporting them.

In the second half of his first term, the president is also likely to seek a trade deal with China, something he alluded to in his November 7 press conference.

What might be included in a trade deal? When it comes to intellectual property theft, China’s past commitments to reduce intellectual property theft, via numerous bilateral agreements with the United States that pre-date Trump’s fame as a reality television star, failed to adequately address the problem. Thus Chinese offers to improve enforcement efforts against counterfeits and copies are unlikely to impress the US.

A face-saving solution for both sides would be for China to eliminate forced technology transfers to Chinese companies. This would allow Trump to safeguard the latest US-owned technologies while Chinese President Xi Jinping would get to declare that China’s own capabilities make these transfers unnecessary.

In his address to China International Import Expo delivered the day before to the US midterms, Xi emphasised measures to expand market access for foreign companies and the need to import goods and services worth $30 trillion and $10 trillion, respectively, over the next 15 years. If China is willing to commit to such market access opening measures and goods purchases from US companies in a bilateral agreement, then this would likely satisfy Trump.

In return, China would ask the US to reduce or eliminate the tariffs already imposed, and not impose tariffs on the balance of goods exported to the US, as the US president has threatened to do. Trump is likely to reserve the right to re-impose stringent trade remedies if China fails to fulfil its commitments. This formula would allow him to declare a significant victory for US exporters and workers across a range of industries, while claiming that the tariff strategy was a success.

If a trade deal along these lines is made, it is almost certain that Democrats will criticise it, even if it expands Chinese market access for US companies and increases China’s purchase of US agricultural products and other goods. Pelosi is a long-time China antagonist across a range of issues, including human rights record and Chinese policies towards Taiwan and is likely to be critical of such a step.

However, opposing a market access or agriculture procurement agreement would risk House Democrats’ standing with voters; by definition, such agreements would alleviate some of the trade imbalance between the two countries. Criticising the administration for not taking enough action on China’s cyberespionage is also a dead-end for Democrats, given that China’s most recent commitment on this issue was made with former President Barack Obama in 2015.

Other China-related issues, to the extent legislative responses are required by Congress, attract broad bipartisan support and are an area where a future Speaker Pelosi and President Trump are unlikely to have much disagreement. These issues include weapons sales and other support for Taiwan, human rights, and a military response to China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Recent naval operations in the region, national security and defence strategy policy statements, and public remarks by US defence officials in various forums have made it clear that the Trump administration will continue to expand its military presence in the Indo-Pacific Region, even if Asian governments are hesitant to publicly support it.

As House Democrats this year gave overwhelming support to the next defence budget, it appears their views differ little from those of the Trump administration.

Deal with Kim Jong Un

As Trump reiterated at the post-midterm press conference, this year’s detente with North Korea, including the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, resulted in the return of American hostages, repatriation of US servicemen’ remains from the Korean War, and the cessation of North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.

Moving forward, negotiations with North Korea are likely to continue in the near term, but are subject to Kim Jong Un’s shifting demands for a treaty to end the Korean War, sanctions relief, a reduced US military presence in South Korea, a second summit, and humanitarian aid.

The Trump administration does not agree with the speed at which South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in wants to implement confidence-building measures with Kim. Nevertheless, it is likely that Trump and Kim will have another summit and the former is likely to push for verifiable actions to end its nuclear weapons programme.

Although some Democrats such as the likely new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engle have been critical of some aspects of Trump’s approach to the North Korea issue, they are generally supportive of the idea of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. If the White House pushes forward with a deal, the House would likely back it. Running in 2020 as the “party of no deal, more tension” with North Korea would be an unusual position for domestic policy-focused Democrats.

South Korea, Japan: Uncertainties abound

Moon should not view the impact of the House result only through the prism of North Korea issues. Although recent modifications to the United States – South Korea Free Trade Agreement do not require congressional approval, Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the agreement in 2011. These recent modifications to would be a convenient target for House Democrats to investigate as part of hearings into the US president’s trade policies.

For Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a successful effort to build a personal relationship with Trump proved insufficient to lessen US pressure to make trade concessions. Now ongoing trade talks might result in a deal that will require congressional approval from Democrats whose views on Japan trade are unclear.

A divided US government is the latest in a series of foreign policy challenges for Abe, who has yet to meet North Korea’s Kim as other stakeholders have, and attracted some criticism from Japan’s friends in the US over his recent visit to Beijing. The potential draw-down of US forces in South Korea and domestic and regional resistance to amending Japan’s pacifist constitution spell more uncertainty for the country’s security. For this reason, Abe has been active in trying to find other security alternatives for Japan; for example, he recently hosted India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and pledged closer economic and military ties.

Other issues in Asia that House Democrats might take an interest in are human rights, religious freedom, and cross-border pollution. Governments throughout Asia might have to quickly adjust to the latest political realities in the US at both the federal and state levels without delay, as the Democrats are likely to become more assertive on foreign policy issues, as they prepare for the 2020 presidential elections.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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