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Asia leaders race to decode Trump on the future of Obama's pivot

Monday, November 14, 2016 - 10:10

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Donald Trump is set to tear up a giant Pacific trade pact and has questioned alliances that have defined America's engagement in Asia since World War II. But it's too early to declare President Barack Obama's "pivot" dead.

[HONG KONG] Donald Trump is set to tear up a giant Pacific trade pact and has questioned alliances that have defined America's engagement in Asia since World War II. But it's too early to declare President Barack Obama's "pivot" dead.

For Asia's leaders, a big question from Mr Trump's win is whether America's military and economic focus on Asia will continue, given how Mr Trump played on a populist mood at home and pledged a less interventionist foreign policy. With an increasingly expansionist China on their doorstep, many countries have looked to the US to provide a counterbalance.

Now diplomats and analysts are parsing Mr Trump's comments and those of his advisers to try and separate his campaign rhetoric of "America First" from the reality of governing, even with the Republican party controlling Congress.

"Coming out of the campaign there was the perception that he was going to pull back and not get entangled overseas," said Sam Crane, a professor of Chinese politics at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Based on the names being considered for key posts - Randy Forbes for secretary of the Navy for example - and commentaries by Mr Trump's inner circle, Mr Crane said he "is going to be as, or even more, assertive than Obama."

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An article published last week by Trump campaign advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro said Mr Obama's policy was "talking loudly but carrying a small stick," with the deployment of warships to Singapore and marines to Darwin "token gestures". Under Mr Trump the Navy would be expanded to "reassure our allies that the United States remains committed in the long term to its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia." Michael Pillsbury, an adviser to Mr Trump's transition team who worked in the Reagan administration, said the article was cleared by the president-elect.

Mr Trump has been quick to speak with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia about his commitment to security ties. Even so, given his unpredictable style, it's impossible to say what he will do in office. In one sign of nervousness over that uncertainty, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is stopping off in New York this week en route to a summit in Peru in order to meet Mr Trump.

The full implications of Mr Trump's elevation for Asia are yet to be "fully appreciated," said former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa. The country's Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan said in an interview last week it's too early to judge Mr Trump, "but I believe the US will see their national interest." "Let's give him two months after he's inaugurated to see what he'll do," Mr Panjaitan said.

The US has been the dominant military presence in Asia since the end of World War II, though it has been in Asia for much longer, ruling the Philippines for a number of decades starting in the late 19th century. That position is in doubt not just because of Mr Trump. China is seeking under Xi Jinping to become a global power, and is using its economic and military heft to push the US aside.

With his campaign slogan to "Make America Great Again", Mr Trump can ill-afford to pull back from Asia and the Pacific. The region boasted six of the top 15 US export markets last year, its companies selling everything from power systems to fuel, high quality foods and financial services. More than US$5 trillion in trade passes each year through the South China Sea, of which US$1.2 trillion is US related.

Asian countries will "want to use competition between the US and China to reap benefits while maintaining relations with both," said Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore's ambassador-at-large. Mr Trump will probably be "extremely transactional," he said. He "will cooperate when there are benefits and compete when that is in his interest. That's how he has lived his life."

While campaigning, Mr Trump lambasted Japan and South Korea for not paying their "fair share" to support US military bases, raising the prospect he might withdraw troops. Still, in a phone call after the election, he told President Park Geun-hye he agrees "100 per cent" on the need to deter North Korea.

Even so, the risk is that Mr Trump's bluster undermines alliances in North Asia, according to Yukio Okamoto, a former diplomat who has advised two Japanese leaders.

"Deterrence is all about how strong and steadfast surrounding countries perceive the US-Japan alliance to be," he said. "Perceptions are the issue." Some analysts point to Mr Trump's pledge to "make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody - absolutely nobody - is gonna to mess with us," as evidence he'll stick with existing arrangements. Mr Trump will pursue a "peace through strength" approach, Mr Gray and Mr Navarro argued in their article.

On the South China Sea, where China has multiple disputes with Asian nations, Mr Trump has accused Beijing of building a military fortress. "They do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country," he said in March.

"The US sees itself as the holder of the balance of power in Asia and is likely to remain determined to protect its allies against Chinese overreach," James Woolsey, an ex-director of the Central Intelligence Agency turned senior adviser to Mr Trump, said in an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post. Unchecked expansionism, he said, "only invites more bad behaviour."

Still, the domestic US climate raises doubts Mr Trump would be keen to intervene militarily in a conflict so far from home, for example if the South China Sea or the East China Sea - where China at Japan are at loggerheads - were to see a real clash.

One thing Mr Trump is likely to follow through on his pledge not to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that covers 40 per cent of the global economy and whose members include Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. He has said the deal would undermine the US economy.

Asia members have said it can't be renegotiated and have urged Congress to pass it. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking in the US in August after meeting Mr Obama, said America's credibility was on the line.

"If at the end, waiting at the altar the bride doesn't arrive, I think there are going to be people who are going to be very hurt not just emotionally but damaged for a long time to come," Mr Lee said.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the deal was not going to happen anytime soon. Still, he told Radio New Zealand, "Mr Trump will get the same advice from the State Department, from the Pentagon, from the Treasury that President Obama got, which is that you need to have influence and you need to have a presence in Asia, and to do that free trade locking you in there is the way to do it."

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