Global Pairings

What Asia Should Learn From Trump’s Rise

Trump’s ability to tap into the fears of those who feel marginalized is hardly unique to the United States.

Credit: Lewis Tse Pui Lung Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The greatest geopolitical risk in the world today is the possibility of a Trump administration.
  • Trump’s message has struck a chord because of deep-seated frustration with the current political system.
  • Fear about the risks of international trade and a stratified society are not unique to the US.
  • Asia is also becoming increasingly polarized, just like the United States and Europe.
  • China’s leadership is playing the nationalist card to deflect attention from real problems.

The greatest geopolitical risk in the world today is the possibility of a Trump administration.

From building a wall along the Mexican border to barring Muslims entry into the United States and demanding more money for U.S. military operations from foreign governments, his proposals would lead to an about-face in Washington’s relations with the world.

Yet it would be folly to dismiss Donald Trump’s ire against the international community as off-the-cuff alarmist rantings. His message has resonated so widely across the United States.

The reason why his message has struck such a chord with a large swath of the electorate is deep-seated frustration with the current political system.

What’s more, fear about the risks of international trade, globalization and an increasingly stratified society are not unique to the United States. Thus, the Trump phenomenon could easily go global.

Worries about being left far behind in the race to accumulate wealth and spreading hostility towards an “invasion” of foreigners is already acute in Europe. Those fears could easily take root in Asia as well.

Trump’s outdated argument

Trump has repeatedly argued that, under the existing trade rules, the United States has been taken advantage of. He believes that Washington should take back the concessions it has given to foreign competitors.

Japan and China in particular have come under attack from Trump as the biggest economic threats to the United States.

He has been highly critical of any moves that would further enhance trade relations with either country, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

It is easy enough to dismiss Trump’s argument as being outdated. After all, while the U.S. trade deficit with Japan peaked in the 1990s, the issue now is too much more about the exchange rate rather than the actual flow of goods and services.

Meanwhile, there are signs that China’s economic engine may not be as robust as it had once seemed. Across Southeast Asia, several countries are vying to become the next low-cost “factory to the world.”

Trump’s take on the current state of economic affairs in Asia may be outdated at best, but the truth is that the world’s most populous and economically robust region in the world is also becoming increasingly polarized, just like the United States and Europe.

Asia also has very large swaths of the population unable to benefit from the fruits of an interconnected global economy.

China playing the nationalist card?

While an unprecedented number of Chinese tourists have flocked overseas to shop at some of the world’s toniest stores and Chinese investors are key players in global markets, the divide between those who are accumulating wealth and those barely scraping by continues to widen rapidly.

The leadership in Beijing has actually emulated its big capitalist brother in Washington by essentially paying mere lip service to correcting the widening gap between those who have gained from globalization and those who are losing as a result.

While the number of those who could suffer is likely to rise, efforts to establish social safety nets have not been forthcoming.

Granted, since China is not a democracy and the Communist Party is not accountable to voters, the need for Beijing to address those concerns may not be as immediate as in countries that need to court the electorate.

Still, China’s leadership is quite adamant about playing the nationalist card in order to deflect attention from the real problems facing the country.

By fanning the flames of xenophobia and rallying nationalist fervor, Beijing has been able to buy time to avoid addressing the pressing issues facing an increasingly polarized society.

Trump phenomenon not unique to the US

However, there is no indication that the ultimate political frustration about the immense inequality between the population at large and the system’s true insiders, prominently those at the top of the party hierarchy, is lessening.

What this points to is that, Trump’s abrasive personality aside, his ability to tap into the fears of those who feel marginalized is hardly unique to the United States.

Just as there is a hunger among U.S. voters to find ways to finder greater equity and benefit from closer global ties, a similar yearning is bubbling away worldwide, including in East Asia.

The real challenge that the current U.S. presidential election cycle presents to Asian governments is whether they can act in time to address those fairness issues before it is too late.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Washington, D.C, United States]

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