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Uncomfortable reality: Trump 2.0, declining US regional power confront Asian allies

JS Oumi conducts a duel Replenishment at Sea with USS Milius (left) and HMAS Arunta (right) during Exercise Malabar 2022 (Source: Defence)

Persistent concerns about the return of Donald Trump to the White House have once again reared their heads as Indo-Pacific US allies come to terms with the ongoing decline of US power in the region and implications for the regional order and its security.

Persistent concerns about the return of Donald Trump to the White House have once again reared their heads as Indo-Pacific US allies come to terms with the ongoing decline of US power in the region and implications for the regional order and its security.

Prior to coming to office following a shocking election victory in 2016, Donald Trump had firmly established himself as the enemy of the mainstream media, much of the post-Second World War order’s multilateral institutions, and the international alliance built by the US throughout the Cold War, or as he defined it, “the swamp”.

For large portions of the American public, made up of the “forgotten Americans” or “deplorables” as characterised by Hillary Clinton, Trump positioned himself as a champion of the outsider, the working and middle class who had been largely left behind by the rapid globalisation of the 1990s and early-2000s that had hollowed out much of America’s once unrivalled middle class.


Promising a revival of Ronald Reagan’s period of economic, political, and strategic realism and optimism became synonymous with Donald Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again”.

By speaking directly to the swathes of middle- and working-class Americans across the flyover states and the Rust Belt of the formerly immense US industrial base, Trump effectively acknowledged their lived experience that America’s position as the global hegemon and the globalisation championed by successive administrations had ultimately failed them.

These communities which disproportionately bore the burden of seemingly never-ending foreign wars and whose communities were ravaged and devastated, as a result of the hyper-globalisation in the aftermath of the Cold War, has fundamentally reshaped American politics and foreign policy.

Equally, his promise to end foreign wars and make America’s allies across the globe pay their way and pull their weight at the strategic level garnered further support from these portions of American society who had been disproportionately asked to shoulder the costs in terms of both “blood and treasure” for America’s costly wars and efforts to maintain the post-Second World War order.

However, as is often said, “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold” and this is particularly a poignant statement when set against the backdrop of the contemporary geopolitical and strategic environment, particularly in the Indo-Pacific as the United States and its “strategic competitor”, the People’s Republic of China, continue to circle one another.

Highlighting the impact of this shifting dynamic and its impact on the policy of America’s Indo-Pacific allies is Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen in a piece for Internationale Politik Quarterly, where he stated, “The United States’ allies in Asia are gripped by the fear of abandonment, but fear does not always produce a rational or practical response. When a kangaroo standing on the road sees car headlights, it either freezes or hops around aimlessly.

“The US’ Asian allies, too, are frozen with panic about the possible return of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Either that, or they are taking urgent steps to redouble their partnership with Washington.”

Like a roo in the headlights

This colourful analogy paints a rather stark picture of how much of the Indo-Pacific is or is expected to respond to the potential of a second Trump presidency following the election in November.

However, the possibility of a second Trump presidency isn’t the only spectre that many nations across the region are having to come to terms with, particularly in light of mounting Chinese antagonism in the Western Pacific and the ever-present danger of North Korean nuclear-armed eccentricity, exacerbated by the limits of US power as a result of broader global events.

Roggeveen argued that the decline of US power in the region has been a long time coming, despite the best of intentions and rhetoric out of Washington, beginning with Obama’s “Asian Pivot” of which Australia was set to play a pivotal and central role in supporting and enabling US tactical and strategic power in the region.

“But the Trump phenomenon alone is not what Asian allies should worry about, and they should certainly not assume that, if he is elected, all they need to do is survive his four-year term before things return to ’normal’. Deep shifts in the status of the United States as Asia’s hegemon have been evident since the end of the Cold War. Over the succeeding three decades, Asia has witnessed a relative decline in American power and an absolute decline in American resolve. For Asia, Trump is not a disruptor or a revolutionary. He is an accelerant,” Roggeveen explained.

Of course while the US has been distracted by decades of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, as part of the Global War on Terror, the People’s Republic of China has been steadily building its own military and economic capacity to coerce and confront critical US allies and by extension, the US itself, as it faces a region of allies that are now directly in the firing line and thus have more “skin in the game”.

Roggeveen detailed the impact of China’s rapid growth and military expansion, saying, “Let’s begin with the relative decline in American power. It is important to stress the word ‘relative’ here because the US continues to grow as an economic and military power...

“But although the US continues to grow, China has grown much faster. It is now the biggest economy in the world and is building a military to match; the world has not witnessed military modernisation of this scale and speed since World War II. China’s ambitions have grown along with its wealth; it wants to be the leading power in Asia, and perhaps the dominant one, which means displacing the US,” he detailed further.

This direct challenge to the post-Second World War order that the United States built and maintained through the consensual support and investment by allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and others has raised questions across many regional capitals that have only been further compounded by the relative decline of the United States both in the region and, more broadly, on the global stage.

“No nation of China’s economic status will submit to being subordinate to a foreign power. So, if the US wants to maintain its status, it will need to win the biggest geopolitical contest it has ever engaged in. As Rush Doshi, a China expert who served on US President Joe Biden’s National Security Council from February 2021 to April 2024 and is now a Senior Fellow for China and Indo-Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), observed in his 2021 book, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order ,’For more than a century, no US adversary or coalition of adversaries has reached 60 per cent of US GDP … yet, this is a milestone that China itself quietly reached as early as 2014’,” Roggeveen explained.

This ultimately spells trouble for a United States that faces challenges both at home and abroad and a network of allies that face similar challenges.

Actions need to match words and protecting the ‘status quo”

Importantly, while the rhetoric out of Washington in terms of its commitment to resisting Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific and maintaining international law and the “rules-based order” has been consistent across administrations since the Obama administration, actions haven’t necessarily matched the rhetoric, thus further sowing discontent and concern across regional capitals.

Equally, waning US support for Ukraine and the ongoing issues facing the bilateral relationship between Israel and the US add further colour to the painting that is Indo-Pacific affairs and the role of the United States as its primary strategic benefactor.

Roggeveen detailed this, saying, “It is now routine for political leaders from both parties to describe China as America’s biggest adversary. The Pentagon calls China’s military its ‘pacing threat’. Yet America’s actions don’t conform with its rhetoric. Most importantly, the US has entirely failed to match China’s military expansion.

“Such is the scale of Beijing’s rise as a military power that if the US were truly committed to this contest, it would have moved its European forces to Asia long ago. But there is no prospect of this happening, and no sign of reinforcements from elsewhere. In fact, the US has barely expanded its military presence in Asia since the end of the Cold War,” he explained.

All of this comes despite year-on-year “growth” in the US military budget that has recently closed in on US$1 trillion a year, revealing the very real limitations of US power, something many a strategic analyst never thought they would see.

Ultimately this combines to place enduring stress on the US and its capacity maintain the “status quo” in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly when allies have been slow to shake off the “peace dividend” mindset that has continued to permeate the strategic and defence policy-making circles in capitals across the region.

Highlighting this, Roggeveen added, “Why would these allies take the riskier and more expensive path of defending themselves independently if the US is willing to do it for them? Also, US alliance arrangements are a kind of subsidy, and subsidies create powerful interest groups dedicated to protecting the status quo. By contrast, no such pressure group loses out from these subsidies, so there is little political incentive to reduce them. Lastly, these moves to reinforce the US alliance structure might be an effort by nervous allies to further tie the US down to the region.”

What makes this reality even more concerning is the realisation by the United States that, as Roggeveen explained, “hegemony is unsustainable” which ultimately, he believes, could devolve into multiple, competing spheres of influence across the region, meaning Australia had better strap in for a turbulent and costly time ahead.

Final thoughts

Fundamentally, where much of the analysis falls short is as a result of the lens through which many analysts and commentators view foreign affairs, mainly through an almost romantic, “gentlemanly” lens where the realpolitik is done behind the scenes, while empty platitudes, pointless press conference, and joint communiques are the status quo.

This romantic world view often leaves us vulnerable as a result of viewing the world as they would like it to be, rather than how it actually is.

Simply put, our world, whether we like to admit it or not, is a jungle and the law of the jungle is one of when the lion is hungry, he eats.

This uncomfortable reality is something we are now witnessing in real time with the chaos sweeping across the world in the face of the seemingly weak Biden administration.

It is understandable then that when a brash, womanising billionaire with a no-nonsense approach to life, who prioritises loyalty and competence, the “experts” who view the world in a romantic manner feel put off, after all, their advice is only accurate if the world plays by a set of rules no one else seems willing to play by now.

In this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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