As he ushered in the new year, President Donald Trump signed into law a congressional Bill that commits the United States to redoubling its Asia profile. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act does not quite make up for the missed opportunities from Mr Trump's abrupt scrapping of the potentially game-changing Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office in 2017. But it is an attestation that the President and Congress see eye to eye in viewing the Asia-Pacific as crucial to US interests and consider it worthwhile to expend time, resources and political capital here. In a region which sees security and prosperity spring from the engaged presence of both the US and China, the message from Washington is welcome.
With its categorical call for the US to develop "a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive policy for the Indo-Pacific", the Act can lessen the scope for presidential whimsy and protect against the caprices of the four-year electoral cycle. The explicit support for Asean centrality in the region and the recommendation that the President negotiate a "comprehensive economic engagement framework" with Asean are other wholesome aspects of the Act. Somewhat more contentious are provisions that the US should continue to "call out" China and authorise funds to counter it. The risk of deepening tensions in the Asia-Pacific is inherent, for instance, where the Act says the US must encourage regional partners to join in the freedom of navigation and overflight operations, which have been used to challenge China's excessive claims in the South China Sea. Testy situations can also arise from provisions that support regular arms sales to Taiwan and the travel of high-level US officials to the self-ruled island that Beijing regards as its territory. Although the Act says that it seeks to build a positive and cooperative relationship with China, it will be viewed in conjunction with other recent US measures, including the insistence on reciprocal access of US citizens to any portion of China, including the sensitive region of Tibet, and the scrutiny of alleged human rights abuses in China's deradicalisation campaign in Xinjiang.