US to expand military presence in Asia-Pacific but Trump ‘unlikely to chart dramatic new course’

US president-elect Donald Trump is unlikely to completely scrap Washington’s existing policy on the Asia-Pacific, an influential mainland South China Sea specialist said on Friday.

The assessment by Wu Shicun, president of think tank the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, came as the institute released a landmark report on the United States’ military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Wu said that while the US was likely to expand its military presence in the region under Trump, the incoming US leader was not likely to push for drastic changes in the country’s approach to Asia.

“Judging from his view on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the momentum for the US rebalance to Asia is likely to weaken,” Wu said.

“There will not be a reversal in the Asia-Pacific policy, but the strategic rivalry between China and the US is likely to continue over the South China Sea.”

The Hainan-based organisation’s report is the first attempt by a mainland academic institution to systematically compile available data on US military spending and deployment in the Asia-Pacific.

It also documents interactions between the Chinese and US navies in the South China Sea.

What will Trump presidency mean for Asia and China’s regional role?

It said the US had substantially increased its military presence in the region by “raising the frequency, scale and complexity of military exercises” – particularly in the Western Pacific – under US President Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia strategy.

While US military spending had steadily fallen since 2011, there was an increase in the proposed US military outlays in the Asia-Pacific and in Europe for next year, it said.

US military personnel deployed in the Asia-Pacific region account for more than half of the country’s total military forces overseas, according to the report.

Trump made little mention of his future Asia policy on the campaign trail, but he has vowed to increase the US fleet from 272 vessels to 350.

Wu warned that a bigger US navy could lead to a greater military deployment in the Asia-Pacific, threatening to “break the delicate power balance” in the ­region.

With Obama gone, Trump in, US-China rivalry is set to intensify

At the report’s launch on Friday, Zhu Feng, executive director of Nanjing University’s China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, said he feared tensions could escalate into an arms race. “What should China do when the US deploys more ships to the Asia-Pacific region? This is a question worth discussing,” Zhu said.

“As China increases the number of its ships, the US will also follow suit.

“What I am most worried about is that there will be a new arms race in the Asia-Pacific due to the tension in the East and South China seas.”

But Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies, said Trump’s top priority in the region might not be maritime disputes, but the more imminent threat from North Korea’s nuclear programme.

“It is becoming more likely now that North Korea may have the ability to attack US soil as it improves its nuclear strength within the next three to five years during Trump’s term,” Wu Xinbo said.

“The US may face the need to shift its focus from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.”

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