While the world’s attention is fixed on the fiasco of Trump’s Muslim ban, there have been interesting developments regarding Trump’s policy towards the Asia-Pacific. Trump has apparently called the Chinese President Xi Jinping and backtracked on his earlier threat to renegotiate the One China policy. This is the first phone call between the leaders of the U.S. and China since Trump’s infamous call to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and his intention to “renegotiate the One China policy.” According to the Chinese government-owned news agency Xinhua, Trump struck a much friendlier tone with the Chinese administration, including offering to cooperate in certain areas. However, experts warn that Trump has not defined what he meant by One China policy and did not refer to any of the core principles outlined by the treaties and official communications. This still leaves plenty of room for Trump to backtrack and stoke tensions between the world’s largest and second largest economies.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe received assurances from Trump that the U.S. would defend Japan, including the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands. These islands are part of Japan’s territorial dispute with the People’s Republic of China. The Trump administration also announced a joint dialogue between the U.S. and Japan to identify new investment and cooperation opportunities. Vice-President Mike Pence and Tarō Asō, Japan’s Minister of Finance, will be heading this dialogue.
Trump’s friendliness with Abe reveals more of the Trump administration’s backtracking. On the campaign trail, Trump criticized America’s allies, Japan included, as freeloading under America’s defence umbrella and stealing American jobs. Trump also threatened to withdraw American troops if Japan did not pay what Trump believed to be the appropriate amount of protection fees. However, some experts noted that Abe has presented himself as the needier partner in the relationship, doing everything including flattering Trump’s golfing skills. Abe’s display of weakness towards Trump and Trump’s disposition as a bully may well lead to Trump extorting concessions from Japan in the future.
Finally, Rodrigo Duterte issued another bombastic statement regarding the Philippines’ foreign policy. Recent disagreement over the U.S. construction of a permanent weapons depot in the Philippines has resulted in a further strain in the relationship between Washington and Manila. Duterte’s claim that the U.S. has always viewed the Philippines as its “little brown brother” and incapable of independent actions is more evidence of this strained relationship. It is uncertain how Trump will react to his Filipino counterpart, with both men having an unshakable sense of self-righteousness and enormous egos. The Philippines’ new foreign policy of a triangular relationship between the U.S. and China is unprecedented in the nation’s history. Given the longstanding ties between the U.S. and the Philippines, there is a strong likelihood that it will not long survive Duterte’s presidency. However, the Philippines’ about-turn under Duterte may also represent a real turning point in the history of diplomatic relations for the country. How Trump responds given his history of bluster to the situation in the Asia-Pacific will be one of the greatest tests for the credibility and flexibility of the Trump administration. It will also reveal whether the administration’s talk tough stance will last.