The View From Asia

In Asia, gnawing uncertainty over Trump's next 100 days

Asia News Network commentators reflect on US President Donald Trump's foreign and trade policy shifts since he took charge on Jan 20, welcoming some and yet feeling anxious about what is to come. Here are excerpts.

Foreign policy shift half-complete

Editorial
The Japan News, Japan

Actual politics does not advance exactly as advocated during election campaigns. It is understandable that United States President Donald Trump has flexibly corrected his policy course after facing harsh reality.

What came as a surprise was the sudden change in his foreign and security policies.

Without falling into isolationism based on his avowed "America first" platform, Mr Trump ordered US missile attacks on a Syrian military base. It is highly significant that his administration demonstrated through action its resolve not to tolerate the use of chemical weapons. The attack on Syria could serve as a check on North Korea, which has been pushing ahead with nuclear missile development.

Mr Trump has been ramping up pressure on Pyongyang, both militarily and diplomatically. It makes sense that he rejected the previous Obama administration's "strategic patience", which has aggravated the Korean peninsula situation, and chose to pursue "peace through strength".

One reason behind Mr Trump's altered policy stance may be that security experts, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who both have had careers in military service, have increased their influence within the Trump administration.


The US Navy conducting missile attacks against Syria last month. The attacks demonstrated the Trump administration's resolve not to tolerate the use of chemical weapons. PHOTO: NYTIMES

It must also be appreciated that the Trump administration has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the Japan-US alliance.

Mr Trump has urged China to implement thorough sanctions against North Korea. While refraining from making hard-line remarks towards Beijing indicating his willingness to wage a trade war, he has been choreographing good relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Will his usual practice of making a deal prove successful?

He must expedite the appointments of high-ranking government officials and craft a comprehensive strategy in areas such as economic diplomacy and trade negotiations.

China warms to new president

Editorial
China Daily, China

US President Donald Trump's decision not to label China a currency manipulator is a positive step. It provides further proof that China and the US are warming to each other after the meeting between President Xi Jinping and Mr Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, on April 6 to 7.

China has repeatedly denied the accusation that it is a currency manipulator, and in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday, Mr Trump agreed this was not the case, saying, "they (China) are not currency manipulators". Such an objective, and justified, approach to the currency issue will certainly help maintain the good momentum that has been manoeuvred in ties.

Bilateral trade has brought huge benefits as the two countries have become each other's top trading partner. In the first quarter, bilateral trade in goods registered a growth of 21.3 per cent.

China has made it clear it does not pursue a trade surplus and it hoped the US would loosen restrictions on its exports.

The two countries have decided to give themselves 100 days to discuss issues in trade, which shows that both sides are making concrete efforts to work together.

Doubts over Taiwan's ties with US leader

Frank Ching
The China Post, Taiwan

In a few weeks, Tsai Ing-wen will mark her first anniversary as President of Taiwan. However, her celebration is likely to be subdued since she is facing intractable problems with the world's two most important powers: China and the US, the guarantor of its security but whose reliability under President Donald Trump is open to question.

Mr Trump has blown hot and cold, raising expectations by speaking to her on the telephone last December in an unprecedented call, during which she congratulated him on winning the November election and he, in turn, congratulated her on her victory earlier last year.

But the jubilation in Taiwan was short-lived. On Dec 11, nine days after that phone call, Mr Trump said on Fox News: "I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'One China' policy, unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade."

The implication was that all issues were connected, and Mr Trump could make concessions to China on some areas, such as Taiwan, if China made concessions in other areas. Taiwan, it seemed, was little more than a bargaining chip for Mr Trump, to be traded away for the US' benefit.

This Trump tendency to lump issues together was demonstrated again when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the US last month. Subsequently, Mr Trump said in an interview that he had told Mr Xi that if China would deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, then the US would accept its trade deficit with China.

Since then, China and the US have been communicating frequently at high levels, from the President down. Taiwan must be feeling distinctly uncomfortable, not knowing what the US is promising China in return for cooperation on North Korea, the South China Sea and other issues.

Sino-US ties good for Asean

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation, Thailand

For the past several months, Asean leaders were worried and perplexed by US President Donald Trump's incessant hostile comments, both before and after he became president, fearing that the rhetoric would translate into actions shaking the diplomatic pillars of the grouping's most important dialogue partners.

This year, Asean is celebrating 50 years of its existence and it hopes to expand its global profile. Indeed, what emerged from Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping gives the region more confidence in dealing with the dialogue partners collectively or separately.

As the Florida summit showed, both bilateral trade challenges and North Korea's nuclear ambition will dominate the discourse in US-China relations in years to come and affect overall ties with Asean.

Like China, Asean members share a similar symptom in their trading ties with the US. Recently, the Trump administration signed an executive order to investigate 16 countries as trade cheats, including four Asean countries - Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand - that were said to need to immediately rectify their trading relations with the US, which has suffered from huge trade deficits.

The US suffered a nearly US$90 billion (S$126 billion) trade deficit in respect to the four Asean members, which have already come up with contingency plans to cope with Washington's growing pressure. Malaysia and Thailand strongly denied they engaged in unfair trading and have already pledged to increase investment in the US, aimed at creating jobs for American workers.

Trade aside, there is a new twist in efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear missile development. Mr Trump has stressed that the US will act alone on North Korea if the request to China for help to pressure North Korea fails.

At this juncture, all diplomatic efforts must be expended to avoid further tension and prevent unilateral action by Mr Trump.

All said, in the coming days, Asean should be more assertive in settling trade issues with the US and, at the same time, it must also insert itself in the effort to reduce tension on the Korean peninsula, as that directly affects regional security.

The uncertainty with Trump

Munir Majid
The Star, Malaysia

US President Donald Trump's rapid fire of orders to fulfil promises he made for his first 100 days was not as easy as he had thought.

Most notable were the executive orders on entry into the US for immigrants and refugees. The way these orders were shot down was one of the most heartening forms of evidence that the liberal system in America is alive and well.

Mr Trump has promised to come roaring back, but not yet. Meanwhile, he has moved to the H-1B visa, signing the "Buy American, Hire American" executive order. For countries outside the US, the main concern with the Trump presidency is his threat to attack the open global trading system, which he claims has been unfair to the US. His performance on this within these 100 days is mixed and uncertain.

US Vice-President Mike Pence was in Indonesia recently to reassure Asia on US commitment to its friends and allies in the region. But damage to trade-dependent economies cannot be good commitment, which even a Trump administration must realise.

Just to mix it up even more, the Vice-President announced that Mr Trump would be attending the Apec and Asean summits in November, something countries in the region were hopeful for but absolutely not sure about.

This message was conveyed after Mr Pence visited the Asean secretariat in Jakarta when he further stated that the Trump administration would work with Asean on security and freedom of trade in the South China Sea.

There is still uncertainty. There will be more surprises. But will the Trump new normal be more normal than new?

•The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see www.asianews.network

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'In Asia, gnawing uncertainty over Trump's next 100 days'. Print Edition | Subscribe