U.S. withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific?

U.S presidential elections always have had profound effects on the global balance of power. The 2016 election is no exception, especially for the countries in the Asia-Pacific.

The “Pivot to Asia” policy of the Obama administration represented a significant shift in U.S. global strategy, from a Middle Eastern/European emphasis to an East Asian one.

On his November 2011 Asia trip, President Obama unveiled his strategic pivot to Asia: the U.S. was to play the leadership role in Asia and to provide confidence to countries in the region so that they need not yield to potential Chinese regional hegemony. To fulfill such a commitment, the Obama administration decided to shift 60 percent of U.S. naval forces to the Asia-Pacific. Another key element of President Obama’s pivot to Asia was to strengthen Washington’s alliances in the region, including supporting for Japan’s “collective self-defense” and boosting ties with America’s allies around China.

Hillary Clinton, as U.S. Secretary of State, was the architect of the pivot to Asia policy and coined the term “pivot” in her October 2011 Foreign Policy article, “America’s Pacific Century.” America, wrote Secretary Clinton, must “accelerate efforts to pivot” to the Asia-Pacific and “commit to seeing it through as among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time.”

Should Hillary Clinton have won the presidency, as Peter Lee of Asia Times wrote, “it could be safely assumed, the pivot would chug along its China-containment track: establishing a clear, bright line between the norm-violating behavior of the People’s Republic of China and the liberal international order led by the United States and supported by Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the other Asian democracies.”

With Clinton gone, will the “Pivot to Asia” also fade away?

There are widespread speculations in Asian capitals, reports Kor Kian Beng of Singapore’s Strait Times, that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, “based on his professed desire to cut back the United States’ role as world policeman and to dismantle its alliance system with countries like Japan, would scale back or even discontinue the strategy that is widely seen to be aimed at curbing China’s rise and influence.”

During his campaign, Candidate Trump, wrote Michael Auslin, author of the “End of the Asian Century,” “shocked friends and adversaries alike by openly questioning the value of key regional alliances, threatening to walk away from them if Tokyo and Seoul failed to pay more for the privilege of hosting U.S. forces for their own defense, even indicated he might encourage both countries to pursue an independent nuclear capability, thereby ending the decades-long American guarantee of extended deterrence.”

Shrugging off the campaign rhetoric, “Within 48 hours of being elected president of the United States,” noted Auslin, “Trump was in touch with America’s two main allies in Asia. A phone call from South Korean President Park Geun-hye and an agreement to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began the transition from campaigning to governing.”

According to press release from the office of the South Korean president, in his conversation with Park, Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to South Korea and told President Park, “We are with you all the way” and agreed “100 percent” with the South Korean President on the need to preserve a U.S.-South Korea security alliance.

After an lengthy meeting with Trump in New York, Japanese Prime Minister Abe told reporters: “The talks made me feel sure that we can build a relationship of trust. Our alliance will not function without trust. I came away convinced that President-elect Trump is a leader who can be trusted.” And since elected, noted Sheila Smith of Forbes, “Trump’s advisors have sought to reassure Tokyo on its support for the alliance.”

Two Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Peter Navarro and Alexander Gray, in their most recent Foreign Policy essay, “Donald Trump’s Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific,” described President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” as “talking loudly but carrying a small stick” and vowed a “more forceful response to China’s maneuvers in the East and South China seas.”

“The U.S. Navy is perhaps the greatest source of regional stability in Asia,” write Navarro and Gray, “Trump will rebuild the U.S. Navy, now at 274 ships. His goal is 350 ships … And there is no question of Trump’s commitment to America’s Asian alliances as bedrocks of stability in the region.”

America’s allies, friends, and potential adversaries in the region are likely to see a more, not less, assertive U.S. policy in Asia under the new administration, a policy “talking loudly but also carrying a big stick.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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