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19:57 20 January 2017

OPINION: From Rebalance to Unbalance: Early challenges for Trump in Asia

By Gordon Flake
PERTH, Australia, Jan. 20, Kyodo

With nearly every change of administration in the United States since the end of World War II, allies and other partners of the United States in Asia have sought reassurance of U.S. commitment to the region.

The nuanced differences in approach, priority, and personalities between Democratic and Republican administrations in past years now appear minor in relation to the uncertainty about the approach of the Trump Administration.

During the campaign and pre-inaugural transition, comments and tweets by now-President Trump about defense burden sharing, expansion of the U.S. nuclear capability, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement have generated concern among allies and friends.

His phone conversation with the President of Taiwan and suggestion that the "One China" policy is negotiable, coupled with strong statements on North Korea and the South China Seas, have further raised anxiety in the region.

As with any transition, there is a risk of an early crisis which would test an Administration that has yet to appoint key officials. One example would be a North Korean ICBM launch.

Barack Obama once described his guiding principle in foreign policy as "Don't do stupid stuff." During the campaign and the transition, President Trump took great pride in his unpredictability.

It is hard to think of a more jolting approach for Japan, a country in which it is said "there is no such thing as a pleasant surprise."

It is one thing to keep one's adversaries guessing, and quite another to do so with allies.

The Obama Administration's approach to Asia will be remembered for what is known as the "pivot" or "rebalancing" with three primary legs: economic, diplomatic, and military.

This provides a useful tool to measure how divergent the Trump Administration approach will be. The most substantive leg of the pivot was economic, embodied by the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, from which President Trump has promised to withdraw the United States on his first day in office.

The diplomatic leg was largely symbolized by the U.S. decision to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) and by having the President attend not just the APEC leaders meeting, but also the EAS leaders meeting.

There are as yet no indications of President Trump's intentions regarding international summitry, let alone the APEC meeting in Vietnam or the EAS meeting in the Philippines later this year.

While it is too early for specifics on the military leg, it is clear that President Trump plans to strengthen the U.S. military presence and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific.

This is a development with both promise and risk for U.S. allies in the region.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Administration have been remarkably proactive in responding to the U.S. transition. Abe made an early congratulatory phone call and was the first foreign leader to meet in person with then President-elect Trump after the election.

However, it is the Japanese prime minister's actions in the region which are more revealing. In particular, Abe's decision to accelerate a visit to Australia to the week before the U.S. inauguration, and the strong statements he made with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about security cooperation in the region -- not to mention the TPP -- highlight the importance of likeminded countries in the region working closely together in the coming months and years.

(Professor Gordon Flake is CEO at the Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia.)




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