While the weeks in the run-up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s April 2017 summit with US President Donald Trump were filled with media reports of Trump and his Republican Party being in disarray, especially after their well-publicized and self-inflicted failure to replace the Obama administration’s healthcare legislation, the first day of the Xi-Trump summit unexpectedly witnessed stark displays of political and military power by Trump and the Republicans (Frizell, 2017).
The first of these events occurred when the Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pushed through a controversial procedural change — the so-called “nuclear option” — to defeat a Democrat filibuster on Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, thus allowing Gorsuch to be confirmed the next day as a Supreme Court Justice, and thereby allowing the Republicans to control not just the political trifecta of the Presidency, House of Representatives, and Senate, but now also the ideological slant of the Supreme Court (Gambino, 2017). The second and arguably more significant event that day occurred when Trump ordered missile strikes on Syria just before his state dinner with President Xi, confirming in action a consequential shift in his understanding of “America First” (Phillips, 2017).
During his election campaign and in his inauguration speech, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric described his prioritizing of US interests above those of other countries. In contrast, the new sense of “America First” that was underscored by Trump’s missile strikes returns to the older understanding of the US as primus inter pares (first among equals) among the nations of the world. In 1991, the US became the world’s unipolar leader when, following the end of the Cold War just two years earlier, the Soviet Union, the US’ long-time superpower rival, finally collapsed (Vesilind, 2016). The US hence became the world’s unrivalled hyperpower, with full-spectrum dominance over the world’s lesser powers, and with the self-appointed right to intervene in other nations for whatever reason it deems fit.
In the case of the missile strikes on Syria, the US drew on its prerogative as the world’s hyperpower to punish the Assad regime for its alleged chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held territory that, as Trump emotionally described, “choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack” (Bidwai, 2002; Landler, 2017; “To Paris,” 1999).
Some have regarded the Trump administration’s sudden embrace of humanitarian interventionism as being the result of the visibly waning influence of Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Bannon, whose message of economic nationalism had guided Trump’s original “America First” rhetoric, and the corresponding rising influence of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom Bannon has reportedly denigrated as a “globalist” (Hartig, 2017; Lim, 2016; Suebsaeng, 2017; Zurcher, 2017). However, the two senses of “America First” — the US as the top priority for US politics; and the US as the unrivalled leader of the nations of the world — are not necessarily contradictory. Indeed, the US military can serve as the key link between Bannon’s economic nationalism and Kushner’s globalism.
With respect to economic nationalism, the US military has long served as a major route for young people in the lower classes to enter the middle class. While troop reductions initiated under the Obama administration had threatened to narrow and close off this key pathway for social progress, Trump’s support for the military promises to reverse this (Homan and Pianin, 2014). Not only has Trump recommended a USD 54 billion increase in military spending in his budget proposal, he has also restored significant warfighting authority to the Pentagon, reversing the Obama administration’s “micromanagement that included commanders needing approval for routine tactical decisions about targets and personnel moves” (Baldor, 2017; Shear and Steinhauer, 2017).
Trump’s reassertion of US hyperpower could encourage countries that had moved into the Chinese orbit during the Obama administration to return back to the US sphere of influence.
Should the US military under the Trump administration increase its overseas engagements, the increased demand for troops in the military services and for workers in defence-related industries will create fresh opportunities for employment in the relatively well-remunerated military and defence sectors. In this way, the two senses of “America First” will become complementary rather than contradictory.
For the rest of the world, Trump’s sudden restoration of the US as primus inter pares will be recognized as a return to the old normal of American dominance of global affairs. Senator McConnell succinctly described the changed global image of the US following the missile strikes: “I think what the president did with the strike in Syria, ironically, is going to be reassuring to an awful lot of people, both here at home and around the world, that America is back in terms of being the world’s leader” (Carney, 2017). In a social media post, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan elaborated on the key messaging of the missile strikes:
“The Syria strikes have important implications beyond the Middle East. Obama drew a ‘red line’ over chemical weapons in Syria which quickly faded to pink and then disappeared entirely as Kerry was played over and over again by the grandmaster Lavrov. It was pitiful to watch. Beijing took note of this lack of resolve, indeed amateur behaviour, by the second Obama administration and calculated accordingly. These strikes took place while Xi Jinping was visiting the US. I’m sure Xi understood the message which has gone some way to undo the damage to US credibility wrought by Obama’s failure to enforce his red line and balance-off Trump’s cancellation of the TPP” (Kausikan, 2017).
Hence, while the Xi-Trump summit succeeded in building trust between the leaders, another major deliverable achieved by the Chinese delegation was the clarity of insight they gained on the willpower of the Trump administration (“Trump drops,” 2017). For China, which had of late seen Trump as a “paper tiger” following his “failure to follow through on vows to label China a currency manipulator and his decision not to challenge Beijing over Taiwan,” the missile strikes on Syria will prompt a reassessment of the US’ willingness to resort to military means to enforce its diktat. As Phillips (2017) notes, “the strikes have given greater credibility to recent US threats to take action to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, with or without Chinese support … Trump’s dramatic move might also make Beijing rethink its alleged militarisation of the South China Sea.”
Importantly for Beijing, Trump’s reassertion of US hyperpower could encourage countries that had moved into the Chinese orbit during the Obama administration to return back to the US sphere of influence. One such country is the Philippines. Following his election in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pivoted the Philippines away from the US and into the Chinese orbit, especially after the Obama administration made allegations of human rights abuses occurring under Duterte’s war on drugs (Lim, 2017). However, Duterte may now be open to pivoting the Philippines back into the US orbit. One source of pressure for this move stems from Chinese pledges of USD 15 billion in investments and USD 9 billion in concessional loans for the Philippines, much of which has yet to be disbursed despite the pledges having been made half a year earlier (Adriano, 2017).
Another source of pressure comes from China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the contested waters of the South China Sea, including the discovery by the Philippine government in March 2017 of Chinese vessels conducting surveys of Benham Rise, an underwater plateau that is located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. While some analysts have identified the “economic exploitation of the potentially resource-rich plateau” as the reason for these surveys, others suspect these surveys to be part of the Chinese navy’s “preparation for submarine operations in a future Western Pacific clash” that security analysts expect will someday occur between the US and China (Stashwick, 2017).
In response to the Chinese incursions into the waters of Benham Rise, President Duterte has announced his intention to change the name of Benham Rise to Philippine Ridge, to better highlight Philippine sovereignty over the maritime territory (“Duterte wants,” 2017). More significantly, Duterte has also announced his intention for the Philippines to “put structures and the Philippine flag” on the 9 islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, including increased military fortifications on Thitu island, which currently houses “100 settlers and a contingent of marines” (Dancel, 2017).
It would not be unthinkable for the Trump administration to seize the opportunity to offer Duterte the full support of the US navy and air force to help defend the sovereign claims of the Philippines, and it would not be unthinkable for Duterte to accept such an offer. Indeed, the Duterte administration has recently accepted Japan’s offer of TC-90 patrol aircraft, leased at “minimal cost” to the Philippine government, to boost Philippine patrols of the South China Sea, including Benham Rise (Punongbayan, 2017). The return of the Philippines back to the US sphere of influence will undo the progress made by China in 2016 in muting Southeast Asian criticism of its activities in the South China Sea, and could bring the US and China closer toward a potentially devastating military conflict in the contested waters.
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