Asia still of interest to Washington, says US diplomat

United States President-elect Donald Trump's nomination of former military men with expertise in the Middle East to key posts in his administration does not mean America is going to turn its attention away from Asia.

In fact, strong bipartisan support over the years for President Barack Obama's rebalance to Asia has shown that the region represents a "bona fide US national interest", said Washington's top diplomat in Asia, Mr Daniel Russel.

"There's something to be said for outfitting a new administration with people who have direct experience in regions that generate the most vexing and difficult challenges to global interests," said Mr Russel, who is Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.

"So I think having a secretary of defence who knows a thing or two about war in the Middle East is easily explainable and in no way suggests that there will be a diminution of interest and engagement in the world's greatest growth area, namely East Asia."

Former military officers tapped by Mr Trump include retired Marine Corps general James Mattis for defence secretary; retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, homeland security secretary; and retired Army general Michael Flynn, national security adviser.

But this is not 2008, when the US and the world were in a financial crisis and the lion's share of America's attention and resources was focused on the Middle East, said Mr Russel, who was speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of a six-day visit to Japan and Singapore.

That Mr Trump and presumptive Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, both have a business background means it is unlikely the US will turn away from a region with phenomenal headroom for growth.

"Today, while there is uncertainty and anxiety expressed in Asia about whether the next administration will engage with the same intensity and enthusiasm as the Obama administration did through its rebalance, that is an impressionistic and prospective fear, not a fact-based fear," he said.

That Mr Trump and presumptive Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, both have a business background means it is unlikely the US will turn away from a region with phenomenal headroom for growth, said Mr Russel.

On Mr Tillerson's nomination, he said: "He is a person who has made a lifetime of dealing with strategic risks and with international politics... So clearly we have somebody who is bringing a great deal to the job."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'Asia still of interest to Washington, says US diplomat'. Print Edition | Subscribe