What President Trump Means for Thailand

What would Donald Trump mean for Thailand? This, of course, is a spectacularly difficult question to answer. We all know that Donald Trump is nothing if not inconsistent; he is “totally flexible on very, many issues”, as he has said himself and demonstrated on too many occasions to count. This means that it is not easy to illustrate what a Trump administration would actually look like to the United States, the world or any specific country in particular.

Yet this is also one of the most pressing questions of the next few months. A President Hillary Clinton would be relatively easy to imagine, and predicting her policies would not be too hard a task; it is not beyond expectations for foreign policy under Clinton to continue more or less seamlessly from Barack Obama’s. President Trump, however, would be a clean break with the past, and regardless of Trump’s current chances of winning the presidential election, it is still imaginable to see him taking the Oath of Office in January next year. He is still one of the favourites for the position of the most powerful man on Earth. So what would Trump mean for Thailand, specifically? Let us spend sometime trying to tackle this question based on what we do know of Trump’s views and policies. It is important to note before we begin that Donald Trump has never specifically mentioned Thailand in any of his speeches. Based on his demonstrated grasp of policy and even basic geography, it is doubtful that Trump himself knows very much at all about Thailand. But we can still work our way around this to construct a limited and hypothetical view of a Trump administration’s impact on Thailand.

Firstly, let us construct an image of Trump’s general beliefs. “America First” is his vision; his slogan is “Make America Great Again”. Such American centrism is further impounded by his binary view of the world: people are either winners or losers, and friends or enemies. This combines into a zero-sum approach to foreign policy, where America is surrounded by nasty enemies always attempting to take advantage over her, for true friends in the international arena are few.

On economics, one thing is clear: Donald Trump is heavily protectionist, a clear break from Reaganomics and instead returning to the days of Richard Nixon. Trump has often accused the Chinese of “theft” due to the trade deficit that the US runs with China (the US imports more from China than the Chinese import from the US). This is total economic nonsense: it is unsurprising that a more developed country would be importing more from a less developed country with cheaper prices. But it does illustrate Donald Trump’s underpinning psychological worldview: that the world is made up of winners and losers and that the US is “losing” because it is not importing more from another country than it is exporting to them. Trump has advocated fixing this by slapping on higher tariffs for Chinese imports. This suggests that Trump would be willing to impose the same protectionist policies on many other Asian countries from which it imports, Thailand included. Therefore, a Trump administration could very possibly hurt Thai exporters, who would be harmed by the higher prices that Trump would be inclined to legislate. As a country heavily dependent on exports, Thailand would definitely be impacted by Trump’s policies.

Some of his other economic policies will most likely keep with general Republican conservative orthodoxies, such as large tax cuts for the rich. However, Trump’s proposals for paying for his tax cuts have been criticised by economists for being theoretically unsound and would likely result in a larger budget deficit. This is especially an issue because he is also simultaneously proposing a massive infrastructure investment program. A curious smoothie blend of Keynesian investment and Reaganesque tax-cuts, perhaps, but in this case the smoothie is unlikely to taste any good: it is economically impractical. On other economic issues, Trump is also worrying. He has been unclear about his position on the US national debt: he has mentioned renegotiating it, but has also said that he will not do anything about the terms of the debt. He has even proposed returning to the gold standard.

While it is unclear which policies Trump will keep and which policies he will actually enact, what can be predicted is the global economic uncertainty that Trump would cause, which would more than certainly impact Thailand. At a time when Thailand’s own growth is sluggish, it can hardly afford an international economic turmoil that will further diminish demand and investment. In addition, some economists have predicted that Trump’s policies, if actually seen through, will cause a recession in the United States, something not seen since last days of Bush’s administration and the early days of Obama. A global economic downturn will of course impact Thailand’s growth negatively.

With geopolitics, a Trump administration would be similarly unpredictable. It does not help that he is so well known for being inconsistent, and it is even worse when we know that he consults with nobody on foreign policy (“because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things”). We do know, however, that Trump often approaches foreign policy on economic terms. His views on China once again stem from his dual view of the world; since the Chinese, he believes, are “ripping the United States off”, they are an “enemy”, not a friend to work with. Trump proposes opposing the Chinese military buildup in a South China Sea, which would escalate tensions in the region further. The Chinese are unlikely to reciprocate his hatred with love of any kind. With Japan and South Korea, two of the US’s staunchest Asian allies, Trump expresses nothing but disdain, and he has called for the US to begin demanding payment for defending the two nations. This would throw the accepted norms of Asian geopolitics into the air. It would also greatly diminish US leadership in the region if Japan and South Korea were to essentially be abandoned.

Another interesting element of Trump’s approach to foreign policy is his near-total abandonment of traditional US rhetoric about democracy and human rights. Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, the US has always been committed to reshaping the world in their own picture of a free republic. Trump, however, has expressed unreserved admiration for despots across the world, in particular Vladimir Putin. In the midst of this confusion, it is difficult to see what would happen to Thailand. Thailand is an important key in the US’s “pivot to Asia”, especially with its geopolitical strategic importance as the centre of mainland Southeast Asia. Trump, of course, is unlikely to grasp this, so could Trump also demand ‘payment’ from Thailand for US military cooperation? Possibly, and it would cause a backlash of unknown proportions in Thailand (and similarly in South Korea and Japan).

It would also throw more uncertainty into Thailand’s recent approach to the great powers themselves. Thailand has recently more or less been given a cold shoulder by the United States for its recent authoritarian turn (with the US disregarding the needs of the circumstances), and it will not have returned to democracy in time for the next president to take office. This has led Thailand to publicly begin moving closer to China while the US has had to embrace Myanmar. A Trump that is more openly accepting of different political systems may be less inclined to intervene in Thai political affairs and may allow the Thai government to win back favours from the US. But with Trump’s potential issues, a result could be a massive diminishment of US influence in the region. Without a counterbalancing force in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand may very well actually end up being drawn even closer into the Chinese orbit. 

Overall, as has been stated so frequently in this article, uncertainty reigns supreme if Trump ever takes office. The issue is not merely with his policies, but also with his lack of policies; it is so difficult for an analyst to predict what Trump means for something when we do not even really know what Trump would actually mean. In the end, a Trump administration is problematic not simply because of the things he says, but also because of the fact that it is him saying it. Such incoherence and inconsistency can only create unknown unknowns. Regardless of what those unknowns are and how they turn out, however, it is difficult to see how the turmoil resulting from a Trump presidency will benefit Thailand- or anyone else in the world.

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