Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Singaporean President Halimah Yacob at the Istana, the presidential residence, in Singapore on June 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Singaporean President Halimah Yacob at the Istana, the presidential residence, in Singapore on June 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS

London — As a businessman, US President Donald Trump saw strength in his willingness to keep multiple balls in the air and change approach as they fell. In international relations, that unpredictability may be proving a liability.

In recent days, Trump’s sudden policy reversals on everything from tariffs to nuclear nonproliferation have prompted complaints from allies and rivals alike.

Such flexible negotiating tactics — laid out in Trump’s 1987 book, The Art of the Deal — have led them to question America’s reliability as a negotiating and, in some cases, security partner.

With defence ministers from around the world convening on Friday for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, questions about US reliability are likely to rival familiar concerns about China’s growing military assertiveness.

"A lot of delegates will be asking the questions they started asking last year about US consistency and its determination to carry on a full defence of the rules-based international order," said John Chipman, director general of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organises the event at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore.

Trump’s moves have put longstanding alliances under strain and created opportunities for China — which has already displaced the US as the top trading partner for most Asian nations — to conduct outreach of its own.

Amid US tariff threats in April, China and Japan held their first trade negotiation in eight years.

Fresh in the minds of delegates are Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, abandon a trade cease-fire with China, remove exemptions for some allies on steel and aluminium tariffs, and cancel — and then revive — his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The summit moves blindsided two key Asian allies: South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had just returned from Washington, and Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe.

"I’m lost" when it comes to Trump, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said during a speech in Brussels on Thursday, just before the US confirmed it would impose new steel and aluminium tariffs on the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

Depleted credibility

Trump later warned Canada that any renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement must be "a fair deal, or there will be no deal at all".

Earlier in the day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration that Trump had nixed the chances for a "win-win-win deal" on Nafta.

China spoke out after Trump said he would proceed with imposing tariffs on $50bn worth of Chinese imports despite his treasury secretary’s announcement that a trade war was "on hold".

"Every flip-flop in international relations simply depletes a country’s credibility," said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry.

The same day, Abe expressed frustration over US plans to impose trade penalties on his country on national security grounds.

Abe, who has invested heavily in cultivating a relationship with Trump, said it was unacceptable for the US to take such an action against one of its closest military partners.

On Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — who took power in May — said he had no interest in meeting Trump. "I don’t know how to work with a person who changes his mind overnight," he told the Financial Times in an interview.

Prisoners released

Still, Trump’s willingness to switch tack midstream — as he did with his letter to Kim cancelling their planned June 12 summit — may at times yield results.

The US president can claim success in securing the release of three American detainees from North Korea and one from Venezuela.

More aggressive attacks on Islamic State have helped bring the terrorist group closer to defeat in former strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

And less than a year after Trump and Kim were trading threats of nuclear war, the two sides are back in talks over the historic summit.

That highlights how concerns about US reliability are less acute in the security sphere, where nations who want to address potential threats from China, North Korea, Russia or international terrorism have few alternatives.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has strengthened ties with the US since coming to power in 2014, will this year become the first Indian leader to address the Shangri-La conference.

The Pentagon, with its $700bn budget, has also shown consistent support for security in Asia, regardless of course changes in the White House.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, enjoys wide respect among his peers and was expected to reaffirm the US’s commitment to the region when he addressed the Singapore gathering on Saturday.

Chipman said Trump’s policy of maintaining full pressure on North Korea was evidence of the US’s continued commitment to Asian security. He also cited a Pentagon decision to disinvite China from the Exercise RIMPAC maritime military drills — the world’s largest — after China landed a long-range bomber and deployed missiles on disputed outposts in the South China Sea.

At the same time, the US’s U-turn on the Iran deal infuriated many allies, who see the agreement as essential to avoiding yet more conflict in the Middle East.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded that the European Union could no longer rely on the US for security.

That shift — like Trump’s earlier decisions to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — threatens to erode alliances built up over 70 years.

Whereas Russia and China must negotiate every issue with every partner from scratch, proponents of the current American-led order say a vast network of alliances creates an advantage for the US.

Trump "is oblivious to the advantages of being at the centre of the global order", said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, in Sydney.

"He is dubious about the value of alliances, even though China or Russia would dearly love to have an alliance network as powerful and cost-effective as that of the US."