IN Washington, the swamp Donald Trump is trying to drain is in tumult. The centres of the established order are fighting back against the elected president with a mandate who is doing what he wants.
On the one hand, there is a system of governance based on the rule of law which accords rights and limits the exercise of power. On the other, a president with a style of rule that transcends and challenges that order.
Whether it is working with the enemy, government by executive order, unrestrained authority in a centralised executive arm, president Trump who is already temperamentally in accord with it feels fully supported by those marginalised and on the periphery who had elected him. He sees it as a battle against the elites. Indeed, he increasingly depicts himself as a victim of the elites, especially the media.
The media wants him impeached. This is not going to happen – at least, not any time soon. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives and Senate would not have it. But Trump has to understand he cannot continually push at the boundaries and violate constitutional authority with impunity. If not Congress, the courts will have him.
Fired FBI director James Comey is expected to appear before the Senate to relate if Trump tried to influence investigation into links with Russia he and his aides forged during and after the election campaign. Already, a special counsel, Robert Mueller, has been appointed by the Attorney-General’s office to establish if there had been criminal violations in those links.
The American president is impetuous, sneering and always up for a fight. This is not the way to govern – anywhere.
He chops and changes. He does not use established institutions, even of the executive branch, like the State Department, which he wholly distrusts as a Hillary Clinton bastion.
There is conflict in Washington, not orderly governance. America is bitterly divided. Trump represents the other side. In this conflict, it is a strong incentive for Trump to ride on populist policies to attack his enemies in the swamp in Washington.
Both the disorder in Washington and particularly the populist policies – many of which are not properly thought through – also have an impact on the rest of the world.
It is difficult to know whom to deal with and which way policies may turn. His “America First” policies, like on climate change and on trade, harm and disregard other countries.
Small countries like Malaysia are down the list of his concerns. Yet we are on the list of 16 with whom the Trump administration claims America has trade deficits which are not tolerable.
The cut-off value of US$10 billion just manages to leave out Israel from the black list. What countries like Malaysia would like to know is what the United States proposes to do about it.
With respect to China, which tops the list with a whopping surplus of US$347 billion, Trump has eased from hanging tough to being pliable. No more talk of China as a serial currency manipulator and of slapping a 45% tariff on Chinese exports to America.
Last month the US entered into a so-called trade deal with China which encompassed a 100-day programme as part of a “comprehensive economic dialogue.” There is to be a 10-point action plan covering topics ranging from meat to financial services to biotechnology.
But American companies are dissatisfied, contending matters such as overcapacity, forced technology transfer and equal treatment of US companies should have been covered.
White House professionals in the National Economic Council and the US Trade Representative’s office say there is work in progress on Chinese steel, after which the administration would decide how to pursue the matters of subsidies and overcapacity – either through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or bilaterally.
This is an interesting twist. Trump does not have any time for the WTO. Yet with China, he might go for the multilateral approach rather than his favoured bilateral dealing.
The officials say they do not want a trade war. So perhaps some sobriety is sinking in.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made haste to Washington this week – Vietnam is sixth in that list of 16 – and ended up with extravagant praise from Trump for the deals he entered into worth US$8bil (the prime minister claimed US$15bil), including US$3bil of US-produced content that would support 23,000 jobs. General Electric is the biggest beneficiary with deals worth US$5.58bil in power generation, aircraft engines and services.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pronounces Vietnam is the fastest growing market for US exports. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is deeply concerned about the rapid growth of the trade deficit with Vietnam (2016: US$32bil). Phuc gets the double squeeze in the firm handshake with President Trump. One must hope he knows where he stands at the end of his visit last Wednesday.
Phuc was the first Asean leader to visit Washington since Trump’s election as president. Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has not taken up Trump’s invitation. Neither has Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Apart from a report that the Vietnamese prime minister said he was waiting to welcome Trump to Danang for the Apec summit in November, and a statement he made expressing disappointment that America had withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there has been no indication that anything pertaining to Asean had been raised – apart, of course, from Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea.
This is the way of Asean. National concerns and the national interest come first. There is not even some kind of debriefing or discussion on or before a visit of such import. Such a shame.
Perhaps Malaysia should take the lead and try to make a difference. As Trump will be coming for the Asean summits in Manila, including US-Asean and the EAS, would it not make sense to prepare a regional position paper on trade with the US?
We can leave the South China Sea issue pretty much alone as it divides more than unites Asean. But surely there must be consensus on free trade, as the AEC is founded very much on that principle.
Should not Asean take a common position on free trade in discussion with the American president? Not one based on generalities but on specifics and benefits, including to those on the supply chains (in terms of employment, revenue and taxes) before imports reach the US destination, not to mention the benefits to consumers in respect of choice, price and inflation.
Instead of just all the normal niceties, could not the leaders meeting incorporate a short, sharp presentation on the benefits of free trade to America and the costs to its economy of subsidy, support and inefficiency?
Already, it has been estimated about three quarters of job loss in America is attributable to employment displacement through technological development. Not through exports to America.
Everyone wants that 20 minutes with Trump. Asean should not fritter it away with amiable general chatter.
Of course, Malaysia has its own particular issues with the US which could be raised in a visit by the prime minister, perhaps at the end of the year or early next year.
By that time, of course, the 90-day “investigation” into the surpluses of countries on the list of 16 (Malaysia’s US$25bil puts it ninth on that list), which technically began on April 7, would have been completed.
There would be plenty to discuss then, even as bilateral representations would have been made at the working level before and after expiry of that period and whatever subsequent American actions.
Other issues, of course, are outstanding on which views can be exchanged, including on investment and technology. Hopefully, by that time, things would have settled down, that sense can be made out of the disorder in Washington.
Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.