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Commentary: For better or worse, America still calls the shots

14 Apr Commentary: For better or worse, America still calls the shots

by Simon Tay

Some had expected a confrontation over trade and other issues when US President Donald Trump hosted President Xi Jinping in Florida late last week. But there were no missed handshakes to upset protocol – as there had been when Trump met German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House. There were no major breakthroughs either.

The most concrete outcome will focus on Americans getting better access to China’s market for financial services and beef.

A deadline of 100 days has been set and this is doable, given that negotiations on these issues began earlier, with the administration of Barack Obama. If this is successful, Trump could claim himself a dealmaker with China.

But, consider the bigger events outside the room, set in motion even as the US and Chinese leaders sat down together at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate: more is at stake.

Just before he sat down for dinner with the Chinese president, Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria. Then, the American navy deployed in waters off North Korea, after a series of provocative missile launches by Pyongyang. These muscular, unilateral moves have many American observers applauding.

But others looking at Trump’s actions can find cause for concern.

Many see the US president’s decision as an emotive reaction, his shock at seeing innocent victims, particularly “beautiful babies”, being killed. “One strike doesn’t make a strategy,” former US defence secretary William Cohen was quoted as saying. There are questions of how effective the US strikes were, especially with no indication of any follow-up.

Similarly, dispatching a US aircraft carrier-led group of warships warns Pyongyang to curb its nuclear ambitions or potentially face a similar missile strike. But a show of military strength offers no clear resolution for a long-brewing and complex problem.

The US actions are not solutions but messages – ones intended, moreover, not just for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un but, even more importantly, for presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi.

Even if Trump has spoken positively about working with Putin, the Americans are not ready to cede Syria and the Middle East to Russia. On North Korea, Trump earlier said that the US will act with or without China’s agreement.

This will surprise those who focused on Trump’s early talk about putting “America first” and believed he would be less involved overseas. His latest actions relate instead to his campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” – of ensuring the US is respected and even feared on the world stage, and is free to act unilaterally, if and when it chooses.

This has many implications for China’s claim to a larger place in the world, so long dominated by America, and for Putin’s reassertion of Russian geopolitical weight.

Even as some praise the decisive actions taken, those who value American engagement with the world should pause and wonder about consistency and follow-up.

Will there be thoughtful and constructive policy, or instinctive and even knee-jerk reactions under the Trump administration?

Much depends on the temperament of the US president as commander-in-chief, and who and what captures his eye and ear.

Even leaving aside personalities, events of the recent past suggest that when domestic public opinion and political support shift, the Americans withdraw.

Questions remain concerning American staying power, guts and guile to deal with challengers and complex problems.

For now, events show Washington will negotiate, or else use force – as Americans see fit. The Trump administration has also shown that America retains the capability and the will to operate on several fronts and on different issues simultaneously. Let us be reminded that Americans can still call the shots – and the air strikes – for better or for worse.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent and globally ranked think tank. He also teaches international law at the National University of Singapore. This article was originally published by the South China Morning Post on Friday 14 April 2017. It appeared in the SCMP as ‘Trump’s Army is making America great again’ and in the SCMP online edition as ‘Trump’s missiles hold a message for China and Russia, but can the US stay the distance?’. It was also published in The Nation on Tuesday 18 April 2017 as ‘For better or worse, America still calls the shots in Asia’.