Last month, just weeks after Donald Trump’s election win, U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Peru to attend the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader’s summit. At the meeting he urged his counterparts in the region to maintain their faith in the United States, even in the wake of Trump’s unapologetic “America First” worldview and protectionist barbs, most notably his pledge to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) within days of entering the White House next January.
It is little wonder many U.S. allies in the region are worried. Trump chastised his opponent Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail for her support of the TPP as secretary of state and called the agreement a “disaster.” He questioned the value of strengthening alliance networks in the region, (a pillar of Obama’s rebalance) and criticized Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea for free-riding on U.S. security guarantees. At one point, he even mused about both countries’ attaining nuclear weapons programs of their own rather than relying on Washington’s. Finally, Trump notoriously singled out China, the world’s second-largest economy, as a currency manipulator that was “raping” the United States through unfair trade practices. He has also, since being elected, made the provocative and unprecedented move of having a phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen—one certain to anger Beijing.
AN ATMOSPHERE OF UNCERTAINTY
Trump’s national security and foreign affairs picks add to the uncertainty. General Michael Flynn, the national security advisor, has a background in the Middle East and seems to have zeroed-in on counterterrorism as his main priority. He has chosen General James Mattis, a decorated but controversial career Marine, as his Secretary of Defense. Trump has yet to make a proposed appointment for secretary of state, but none of the rumored options appear to be particularly experienced in East Asian affairs.