Is it Role Reversal? Protectionist Trump – America First, or China Going Global



President Donald Trump’s swearing in speech from Capitol Hill on January20, 2017, resonating “America First” policy, appeared as an extension of election rhetoric, reassuring his voters that he will pursue agendas for which he has been voted to power as a President. The world seems to have perceived it as protectionist policy, inward looking business policy statement, at a time when China is waiting to seek global role and gradually increasing its strategic and economic footprints globally. It was just a day prior Chinese President told UN in Geneva that his nation wants to lead efforts to shape relations between world’s major powers, (South China Morning Post, January19, 2017).This indicates global positioning efforts of China as a global leader, expecting the Trump administration’s inward looking ideas might reduce the US role on the world stage, although China still needs much more maritime, technological and diplomatic capabilities to be thinking of a global role reversal.

President Trump’s address has evoked mixed response globally, even if he was amusing the domestic community, despite some protests that day. He did address some of the developmental and social issues to connect to the American population. Some of the points which clearly indicated are:-

  • Decisions on trade, taxes, immigration, and foreign affairs to benefit American population.
  • Protect America from other countries making our products, stealing their companies, and destroying jobs leading to great prosperity and strength.
  • Bring back American jobs and wealth.
  • Build new roads, highways, bridges, airports, and tunnels, and railways with American hands and labor.
  • Buy American and Hire American.
  • Make America Wealthy, Proud, and Safe Again.

Last week Washington Post had listed nine ongoing foreign policy issues which the Trump administration will have to face, to include Ukraine, Europe, Afghanistan, Islamic State, North Korea, Israel, Iran, China, and Mexico. It is understandable that the President could not have covered most of them in a short speech, but the world looking for global content, foreign policy or strategic content in the speech, could have been disappointed to find only few lines for their interpretation like:-

  • Will reinforce old alliances and form new ones.
  • Unite civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism and eradicate it.
  • Unlock mysteries of space, free the Earth from diseases, harness energies, industries and technologies.

An interpretation of America First Foreign Policy

The transformation of Businessman President to a statesman is expected to be faster than anticipated, as the checks and balances of the US old democratic system will ensure that, however till then the environment of unpredictability is expected to have its own advantages and disadvantages. Some of the interesting interpretations of America First Foreign Policy could be:-

  • Foreign policy that focuses on American interests and its national security as first priority. This may affect the image of US as global net security provider adversely, and may be advantageous for competitors like China or Russia.
  • Trump Administration is unlikely to tweak any old alliances.
  • Cooperation and Competition with China may well go to next level as a Trade war and a cold war.
  • Their fight against radical Islamist groups could mainly target ISIS, and other groups dangerous to US people. Its global fight could expand to choke funding for terrorist groups, expand intelligence sharing to include cyber warfare.
  • Renegotiate existing trade deals, take a tough stance on future ones in an effort to bring jobs back to the country and support American manufacturing and infrastructure sector.
  • Withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, having 12 members, without China and India. Renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
  • Increase defence budget to increase military capabilities globally.
  • Develop state-of-the-art missile defence system to protect against missile-based attacks from adversarial nations like North Korea.
  • A softer US approach towards Russia is a major anticipation amongst strategic community.

Advantage China for Global Influence

    The speech of the President has created an unpredictability, and the protectionists tone has not impressed many friends of US positively. The sabre rattling in South China Sea (SCS) since last one year or more, US lifting arms embargo on Vietnam, and an unprecedented visit of US President there, was indicating how keenly that strategic space was being contested. The erstwhile Cold War is heating up with entry of China, who in last six months has made best use of the US relative inaction in Asia-Pacific Region, due to their domestic occupation in pre and post elections scenario, to increase its strategic space. The deployment of China’s weaponry and infrastructure in various artificial structures in SCS continues to increase unchallenged in last few months. The diplomatic swinging of Philippines stance/leadership on SCS, or influencing consensus of ASEAN on their outlook towards SCS, or bandwagoning smaller neighbours by “infrastructure diplomacy” and “Purse Diplomacy” of China are part of cold war. The biggest gain China has made is in Pakistan, by exploiting receding US interest there, to get warm water access through CPEC and getting space for commercial/ potential military base at Gwadar, and taking train upto Iran. In fact China had restricted the live coverage of President Trump’s speech.

     The US-China Trade War to include devaluation of Yuan and launching of AIIB by China was already on. The heating up is evident from the fact that the President Trump has chosen a China critic for Trade role, and China has invested in almost all continents to use their overcapacities. The famous phone call to Taiwan President by President elect Donald Trump, followed by his questioning the US binding to “One China Policy” in an interview to Fox News on December11, 2016. It can also be a signaling to seek concessions elsewhere. China has also reacted sharply with their Foreign Minister Wang Yi asserting that no country is exempted from ‘One China Principle’. It gives readable signals of serious challenge in their relationship.

Impact on India

The current upswing in Indo-US relationship is likely to continue, more so in the context of rebalancing China. There has been no change in Diplomatic/Strategic interest; hence there is no reason to speculate that the relationship between Trump and Modi will not be as successful. Some of the important issues worth attention are:-

  • If President Trump seeks to reduce temporary work visas India would likely see fewer of its citizens coming to work in the United States, putting its IT companies under pressure.
  • The U.S.-Iran relations could also impact US – India relations indirectly. Iran continues to be an important supplier of crude oil to India; hence Trump’s outlook to Iran will remain a cause of anxiety for India.
  • Trump being a clever businessman is quite likely to look for more market access in consumer heavy markets of India, particularly in trade of defence equipment. US has emerged as largest supplier of Defence Equipment to India, which is the largest purchaser of Defence equipment in the world.
  • US has designated India as a “Major Defence Partner”. And had inked Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), to provide refuelling, berthing and logistics support to each other’s warships and aircrafts in 2016. Fight against terrorism, joint exercises for countering terrorism and securing freedom of navigation at sea are other areas of cooperation, which fit in Trump’s policies.


Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM



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