What would President-Elect Trump mean for Sri Lanka and Asia?

By D.A Jayamanne
First Published in Daily News

Foreign policy analysts are scrambling to understand the potential impact of a Trump Presidency on Asia and other regions. Not only did Trump ran an unconventional campaign, his campaign themes challenged years of bipartisan consensus on U.S. engagement and leadership in the world. “We will no longer surrender this country to the false song of globalism” said the now President-elect Trump in a landmark speech on foreign policy back in April. He went on to say that a top policy goal in a Trump administration would be to “end the era of [global] nation-building and create a new foreign policy”.

Throughout the campaign Trump was sharply critical of U.S. interventions overseas, especially the war in Iraq, interventions in Libya, even challenging U.S. commitments towards NATO and other U.S. allies.

We don’t know how much of Trump’s rhetoric will translate into policy” says Frank Lavin, a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore and a U.S - Asia expert.

“We don’t to what extent this was just campaign talk or how deep and heartfelt this view is”. Speaking in the online podcast series for Advocata Institute, a Colombo-based think tank, Lavin went on to explain that President elect Trump’s key cabinet positions might provide the first clues as to how the president-elect might govern.

“The eyes of the world would be on him as he selects the key cabinet positions of Secretary of State, Defence and Treasury” says Lavin, “How orthodox are some of these selections; Is he picking from the mainstream currents of U.S. policy engagement, where there is generally a consensus on U.S. leadership in the world, or is he picking more outliers?”. Even then, there could be some ebb and flow warns Lavin, and that it’s wise to adopt a “wait and see” approach until President Trump takes office and gets about his business.

So far, Trump has made several picks that gives hope to the more mainstream sections of the U.S. policy establishment.

This has included picking ex Trump critics such as Louisiana governor Nikki Haley, as the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. More surprisingly, it is reported that the president-elect is seriously considering former governor Mitt Romney for the key position of Secretary of State, the U.S. equivalent of foreign minister.

Romney was a fierce critic of Trump’s candidacy and remained bitterly opposed to his campaign till the end. All picks must go through a hearing process before being confirmed.

“Every president wants to put their stamp on the office” comments Lavin, “but I would say there’s there tend to be a lot more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than there is change. Even though President Trump comes into office as a ‘change candidate’. Certainly, some changes may be afoot. Broadly speaking however, United States is the same country and we have the same challenges, our national interests are still the same, so we are probably talking about what kind of weight we are giving to certain foreign policy goals, rather than seeing radical changes to those goals”.

This may be particularly true in the case of U.S. policy towards Middle-powers and smaller countries that doesn’t have a strong policy dimension according to Lavin. These relationships are mostly friendly and revolves around classical diplomacy.

More is known however about Trump’s apprehensions towards multilateral Trade deals. Trump last week doubled down on a campaign pledge to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a Free Trade deal that involved 12 pacific rim countries including Japan, Canada, Australia and America.

“The TPP would have allowed the U.S. to set the architecture for the Asian region and help determine the kind of trade relations that benefit all parties.” says Frank Lavin, who served as the U.S. under secretary for International Trade from 2005-2007. “If the U.S. is not going to set that architecture, then what we are allowing is for other parties to do it. Some might do it with the U.S. in mind, others might do it to exclude America”.

According to analysts, one of the foreign policy objectives of the TPP was to create trading bloc that counter balances China’s dominant exporting power. American politicians often complain about China’s mercantilist attitudes towards trade. Lavin agrees.

“China can be mercantilist in trade. They do have national champions they promote, and use industrial policy to favor those champions”. But part of the solution is to work more with countries that do play by the rules says Lavin, and this is where the TPP would have been useful according to the former diplomat, who now heads an e-commerce company based in China.

So how does all of this impact Sri Lanka? On trade, the scrapping of the TPP would mean that Sri Lanka is saved from potential risks arising from being excluded in the agreement.

A study by the IPS estimated that Sri Lanka could stand to lose around $40 million worth of exports by being excluded from the TPP. For his part, Trump says that instead of the TPP, he will negotiate “fair, bilateral trade deals” indicating perhaps that a potential U.S. - Sri Lanka bilateral trade agreement may not totally be off the table.

On general foreign relations, things are much murkier. Sri Lanka’s relationship globally is dominated by the alleged human rights abuses during the conflict years and the commitments the country had made to the international community.

Whilst Trump’s campaign rhetoric certainly point to a more non interventionist foreign policy agenda for America, it is unlikely that the entire machinery of U.S. diplomacy be overturned.

As ambassador Lavin explains, critical clues will in be who Trump chooses as his key advisors on foreign affairs, and after that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

See the full podcast with Ambassador Frank Lavin.