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18:45 5 December 2016

OPINION: Trump in Asia: Rebalancing, or abandoning the pivot?

By Frank Jannuzi
WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, Kyodo

President Barack Obama's "Pivot to Asia" fulfilled some of its key objectives.

Obama upgraded U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific, negotiated revised defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japan Alliance, stabilized U.S.-South Korea-Japan relations, enhanced maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian partners, implemented the KORUS (South Korea-U.S.) Free Trade Agreement, and normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar.

With his trip to Hiroshima, Obama also underscored a central theme of his administration: the pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Altogether, Obama's pivot was a "solid double," as former East Asia National Security Adviser Jeffrey Bader recently concluded.

Left undone by Obama: putting U.S.-China relations on a foundation of mutual trust, and reining in the nuclear ambitions of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Donald J. Trump has entered the batter's box. Will he bring the runner home, or strand him at second base? Will he be patient, or will he flail at pitches out of the strike zone? It's hard to predict.

Trump is a rookie at foreign affairs, with almost no time spent in the minor leagues, and we still don't know who most of his teammates will be.

We can get hints from the campaign. Trump ran on an "America First" theme.

On security, he demanded U.S. allies do more to justify America's investment, and even suggested that South Korea and Japan consider acquiring nuclear weapons if they were dissatisfied with U.S. assurances. He is unlikely to get much by trying to strong-arm America's friends.

On economic policy, Trump vowed to tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement on his first day in office, spoiling the fruit of more than a decade of tough negotiations. With the demise of the TPP, at least for the foreseeable future, the ability of the United States to "write the rules" of trade has been degraded.

It is possible that the other TPP nations may seek to proceed without the United States -- an approach advocated by Brookings economist Mireya Solis -- but this seems like a long shot. More likely, China will capitalize on the U.S. retreat.

In sum, Trump's campaign promises are unwise. But Trump's approach should not be misinterpreted as isolationism. He hopes to emulate Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength," boosting defense spending, expanding the size of the Navy, and launching a ruthless assault on ISIS.

And he is not necessarily against all trade agreements; just the ones that don't bear his imprimatur. Still, by questioning the value of alliances and multilateral trade agreements, Trump has signaled a go-it-alone approach more in line with his egocentrism than with Obama's collaborative instincts and "lead from behind" humility. If he follows through on his pledges, Trump could reduce Obama's strategic pivot to just a head-fake.

As for China and North Korea, the indications from the Trump team are mixed.

Relations with China seem destined to be rocky. Trump has threatened to declare China a "currency manipulator" and impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods if Beijing fails to remedy its trade surplus.

Just last week, the president-elect arranged a phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking 37 years of precedent. As Trump's aide Kellyanne Conway explained, "It was just a phone call at this point." She said Trump would make plain "the fullness of his plans" after he takes office.

Beijing was not amused. China has a track record of calibrating its cooperation with the United States to its assessment of the health of the overall relationship.

Trump's tough line with China has major implications for his ability to manage the challenge of North Korea, which has grown much more acute on Obama's watch. Over the past eight years, the DPRK has greatly expanded its stockpile of fissile material and tested a variety of new, longer-range ballistic missiles, including a submarine-launched version.

During the campaign, Trump actually offered to engage in high-level diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, and mused about inviting Kim to a "hamburger summit." As ridiculous as it may seem, this "swing for the fences" approach might actually prove more effective than Obama's "strategic patience."

Jump-starting North Korea policy will require a bold diplomatic opening -- as bold as Nixon sending Kissinger to China. Kim Jong-un would probably find any Trump overture flattering, and might reciprocate. I bet Kim has read Trump's "Art of the Deal."

It would be ironic if Trump negotiated peace on the Korean Peninsula -- a prize that evaded the grasp of the Nobel laureate -- and thereby ensured a positive historical legacy for Obama's pivot to Asia.

(Frank Jannuzi is president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation.)

==Kyodo

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