Stunning Trump call with Taiwan leader raises questions about future US Asia policy

US President-elect Donald Trump arrives at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on Nov 8, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

The early contours of US President-elect Donald Trump's Asia policy is coming into view and here it is - there is no clear plan.

Mr Trump's telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen suggests the scatter shot diplomacy that lies ahead as the first American president who's never before held public office or had military experience prepares to take charge of the lone Superpower on Jan 20.

The phone conversation, announced first by the Trump transition team, is regarded as the first known contact between a US president or president-elect with a Taiwanese leader since the United States broke diplomatic relations with the island in 1979.

Mrs Hillary Clinton, who as US Secretary of State devised the Obama 'pivot to Asia', irritated China in many ways, including by standing on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in Manila Bay and referring to the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea.

But the Obama administration and Mrs Clinton were always careful to not cross some key lines with China, particularly over its most sensitive spot, Taiwan.

Mr Trump, however, seems bound by none of the familiar Out-of-Bounds markers. Even so, analysts are surprised by how quickly he has moved to stir things up.

"Because some of Trump's advisers have advocated stronger US-Taiwan ties it was widely predicted that this issue could spark a major crisis between Washington and Beijing," says Dr Ian Storey of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). "But no one predicted that this issue would blow up before Trump even took office!"

Dr Storey said he expected China, the world's second biggest economy and global power, to be "stunned" by the move.

"Shock will quickly turn to incandescent rage," he added.

Other big Asian nations are puzzling over Mr Trump.

In mid-November, Mr Trump held a hastily-arranged 90-minute meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York, even inviting the visitor to stay back for dinner. Mr Abe, deeply worried about the future of the Japan-US alliance under Mr Trump, left the meeting gratified and told the world that he was confident that the President-elect would be a "trustworthy leader".

Within no time, Mr Trump had announced that he would scrap American participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic leg of the US pivot to the region. Mr Abe had striven hard to have TPP accepted within his own nation.

Likewise, India, Asia's second biggest nation after China, is also bemused after Islamabad published the readout of a conversation the American leader had with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Trump heaped praise on Mr Sharif in that conversation, stroking him by saying he and Pakistan had a "very good reputation", were doing "amazing work" and acknowledging Pakistan as a "fantastic" nation of "exceptional people." More vexing for India, Mr Trump seemed to suggest he was willing to mediate in the knotty India-Pakistan relationship.

Although it is unusual for government leaders to broadcast precise details of their conversations, and the Trump transition team has tried to walk back from some of the comments, the Pakistani version is regarded as a broadly accurate portrayal of the actual conversation.

Observers have noted that the same Mr Trump had Tweeted in 2011 "Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend" after Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid not far from Pakistan's military academy. A year later, he had Tweeted : "When will Pakistan apologize to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for 6 years?! Some 'ally'."

His Southeast Asia policy also seems to work to no preconceived plan.

Thailand and the Philippines are treaty allies of the US, while Indonesia, the largest nation of Muslims, takes pride in its pluralist outlook. While it took him more than two weeks to speak with a leader in Asean, the first phone call he took was from Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak.

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