Butterfly Effect: What America's Friends Love About Trump - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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America's major allies and partners want the next president — whoever it is — to continue with Trump's tough approach with China.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

New Delhi welcomed two unlikely guests this week: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. It’s unusual for any country to host senior officials from a nation on the cusp of national elections for fear of being seen as partisan. India, however, was public in its welcome of Pompeo and Esper. This wasn’t about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bonhomie with President Donald Trump — the Indian leader has effectively campaigned for his American counterpart in the past.

India’s warmth for Pompeo and Esper was reflective of a deepening strategic relationship with a common challenge in mind: China.

For four years, we’ve frequently seen America’s allies and partners at loggerheads with Trump and his administration, exchanging public barbs, ignoring the U.S. leader at multilateral summits and cringing at some of his more obnoxious comments. NATO allies have bristled at Trump’s repeated suggestion that they’re freeloaders counting on American military support against Russia without paying enough for it. Japan and South Korea have wondered whether Trump might trust his friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un enough to withdraw the security umbrella America has provided its Asian allies since the Korean War. Even New Delhi, which has gotten away with facing the worst of Trump’s ire, has had to grapple with heightened U.S. tariffs and insults that the American president throws almost unthinkingly — during the final presidential debate with Democrat Joe Biden last week, he called India “very filthy.”

But as America votes to decide whether it wants four more years of Trump, there’s one area where the country’s major allies and partners want him — or more accurately, his approach — to broadly continue. And that’s with Beijing.

Trump’s trade war with China had initially upset Europe, India and Japan, disrupting their supply chains and dragging down their economies. But while they’ll never explicitly say so, Brussels, New Delhi, Tokyo and other American partners have been happy to quietly cheer on Trump’s tough measures against Beijing over the past year. Those include economic sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and a controversial new security law for Hong Kong, and an increased military presence in support of Taiwan, which China claims as a part of its country.

These heightened U.S.–China tensions have allowed Europe to take liberties with Beijing — the Continent’s largest trading partner — that were previously unimaginable. In September,

European Union leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Chinese President Xi Jinping to end Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang during a virtual summit. In a different time, such direct criticism would have sparked at least symbolic retribution from China. But at the moment, Beijing is hamstrung by the reality that it cannot afford to simultaneously alienate both Washington and Brussels.

Japan has been trying for years to get some of its top companies to relocate factories from China, amid growing tensions between the East Asian nations. In 2020, that plea is working. It is shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to get dozens of Japanese companies — worried about a disruption to their supply chains after the pandemic and because of Washington–Beijing tensions — to move out of China.  

Trump has also turned what was merely an idea into a solid, working strategic counter to Beijing in the Asia Pacific: the so-called Quad, a coalition of four democracies — the U.S., India, Japan and Australia — which will soon hold their first combined naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Beijing has in the past protested against such military exercises, which it claims are part of an American conspiracy to contain China’s expansion.

On Tuesday, India and the U.S. signed a military pact that will facilitate greater exchange of sensitive strategic and geospatial data between the partners.

Whoever wins on election night — or in the days that follow if it’s a disputed vote — America’s allies and partners will hope that the next president keeps up that pressure on Beijing. In 2011, President Barack Obama and his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had outlined what was described as a “pivot to Asia.” Simply put, the Obama administration promised to reorient its military and strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific region as a counter to China’s aggressive actions, including in the South China Sea. Yet by the time Obama left office, America had done little to meaningfully challenge China in the region, and Beijing had further expanded its territorial ambitions.

Japan, India, Australia and South Korea in particular worry about a repeat under a potential administration — though the Democratic challenger for the presidency has been strident in his criticism of China. No one wants a military confrontation with China, but none of them wants Beijing to conclude that the opposition of democracies to its expansionism is no more than frustrated hand-wringing.

Yes, Trump can be a bull in a china shop. But it’s the one shop where America’s friends would be happy to see the next U.S. president continue to wreak a bit of havoc.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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