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Unclear direction of Trump policy poses uncertainty, possible danger to Asia-Pacific region, says expert

Some of America’s foreign policy elite are “unprepared” for Donald Trump’s win and the lack of any clear understanding over the next US president’s policy direction could pose great uncertainty and danger to the Asia-Pacific region, warns a veteran Washington expert on maritime and Southeast Asia politics.

The victory of the real estate tycoon and political outsider on Tuesday sent shock waves not only through the political establishment in Washington, but also nations around the world – in particular America’s Asia-Pacific allies who have been nervously looking for clues about what a Trump presidency would mean for the region.

Gregory B. Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow at the Southeast Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said even the foreign policy elite in Washington were in the dark,.

He also suggested that Asian nations might need a “Plan B” in case the Trump administration reduced the US presence in the region. 

“The foreign policy community is wildly unprepared for the Trump victory …” said Poling “… and is, for the most part, completely divorced from any decision-making going on in the Trump campaign.”

During the campaign trail, the US president-elect often attacked the foreign policy decisions made by the administration of the outgoing President Barack Obama and his opponent Hillary Clinton, who was a former secretary of state.

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However, Trump had so far spoken very little about his views on Asia, except for his constant barrage of allegations that China had stolen American jobs, pledges to launch a trade war with Beijing, and complaints that nations, including China and Japan, had taken advantage of the United States.

Poling said: “The only couple of people who are familiar with Asia [that Trump] had are economists focused on China.”

The existing make-up of Trump’s foreign policy and security advisory team had worried many people in Washington, as he had isolated himself from the mainstream foreign policy and intelligence community, Poling said.

“The few [advisers] he has are either not well respected in the community or a handful of them are former [advisers] from the [George W.] Bush days. So these are not what we call mainstream Republican experts now.”

Over the past 18 months, Trump had talked mostly about Asia policy in the context of Sino-US rivalry, Poling said. Although his statements made on the campaign trail might not translate into actual policy, there was still a danger of the next US president viewing Asia only through the prism of China.

The uncertainty over how Trump’s Asia policy would turn out might also erode trust among America’s allies in the region, he said.

“If you are an American partner or ally, you have to be coming up with a ‘Plan B’,” he said.

Trump has indicated he would be open to Japan and South Korea building nuclear weapons to deter North Korea – a statement that has caused speculation that under Trump the US might reduce its presence in the region and spell the end of Obama’s pivot to Asia policy.

“Some might have to seek accommodations with Beijing [that] they find distasteful – that they prefer not have to make,” Poling said.

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However, there is at least one clue to understanding Trump’s policy directions.

“Donald Trump’s statements on foreign policy have been a reflection of his domestic policy,” Poling said.

As hundreds of government positions would be filled in the coming two months before the president-elect takes office in January, Poling said it would take time for a complete and more accurate picture of Trump’s actual policy blueprint to take shape.

The presence of the US in Asia-Pacific was still key in addressing some of the thorniest issues in the region, experts said.

Bonnie Glaser, another CSIS expert on the US’ China and Asia policy, said working with America’s allies, Japan and South Korea, in deterring North Korea’s nuclear programme should be the top priority of the next US president’s Asia policy.

“After eight years of North Korea being an important but not urgent problem, it has become an urgent problem,” Glaser said.

North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests during the Obama administration. Pyongyang has been able to make significant progress on its nuclear development despite UN sanctions.

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In the South China Sea – another major source of conflict in the region – Poling said that while tensions had eased in recent months since the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June, there were still risks of conflict in the long term.

China has reportedly allowed Philippine fishermen to return to the Scarborough Shoal as part of the tacit agreement reached between the two countries during Duterte’s China visit in October.

But Poling said he still saw the situation in the troubled waters as highly unstable.

“I don’t think we have gotten any closer to talking about the core issues, [such as the] interpretation of the nine-dash line [Beijing’s claim that encircles as much as 90 per cent of the ­contested waters], rights of regional states to access EEZs [exclusive economic zones], or any of the thorny flashpoints like the Reed Bank and the Second Thomas Shoal.

“All of those [problems] are still out there.”