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Did the US just say ‘pivot’?

Ravi Velloor | New Delhi |

The hand-wringers of the past five months who forlornly expected that wider Asia was poised to be cashed out by an America under President Donald Trump are probably breathing a bit easier lately.

Although Washington timed it poorly – US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Jakarta coincided with the Indonesian capital’s frenzied election to appoint a new governor – it is noteworthy that Mr Pence pointedly drove to the Asean Secretariat to deliver a key message. The American President, he said, would travel to Asia to attend three important summits: the Apec meeting in Vietnam, as well as the Asean-US and East Asia summits in Manila, the Philippines.

That the US was in a hurry to state this so early in the day – the summits are only in November, after all – sends a few reassuring signals, even as the news in some ways was overshadowed by the spectacular election loss of the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta.

The first is that contrary to initial expectations, Mr Trump may not be that averse to multilateral diplomacy if it suits his purpose. Secondly, it holds a measure of reassurance of continued American strategic commitment to the South-east Asian region.

A hundred days into his term, there is much that Asia would wish of Mr Trump when it comes to regional affairs. For instance, who doesn’t pray that he’d move faster on so many key administration posts that remain unfilled, particularly in the State Department. The American spoils system that gives presidents an opportunity to bestow plum posts also means that key slots in Asia, such as the ambassadorships to Singapore, Tokyo and New Delhi, remain unoccupied. Indeed, with the exception of China, we do not even have names yet for these positions, not to speak of the confirmation process that lies beyond.

But that is the way the American system functions and we are stuck with it. Meanwhile, Asia perhaps can draw some relief that Mr Trump is showing signs that as he settles into office, the briefings that he shied away from in his initial days are having their impact. National interests, after all, are permanent. Like every new leader in office, he also probably realises that his predecessor wasn’t as dumb or ill-advised as he had thought him to be.

For now, Asean can take some comfort that after an uncertain start, there has been a flurry of activity vis-a-vis South-east Asia and wider Asia.

As US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy pointed out last week, his boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has already hosted Asean ambassadors, and will be meeting Asean foreign ministers next Thursday. Indeed, this will be a second visit in quick time for Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, also his nation’s Foreign Minister, who recently called on Mr Tillerson in the United States.

Interestingly, on the very day that Mr Tillerson hosts Asean foreign ministers, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Trump will have their first face-to-face meeting – in New York City, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, when the US and Australia jointly staved off enemy forces. Australia is America’s oldest ally. Its Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has fervently pitched for America to recognise Asean centrality in Asian affairs, and it’s a good guess that Mr Turnbull will make the same point when he meets Mr Trump.

In the first week of June, US Defence Secretary James Mattis is a confirmed speaker at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where Mr Turnbull will deliver the keynote speech.

All in all, there’s a gathering momentum that should, by present indication, go only one way in the months ahead. Clearly, the Japanese and Chinese ambassadors who arranged summits for their bosses are not the only Asian envoys making headway in Washington. Other Asian envoys have been active too. The task now is to make sure that Asian issues other than North Korea get Mr Trump’s attention.

“We can very much expect that the South China Sea issue will be addressed and talked about very frankly so that we can all continue to pursue what we hope will be the inevitable outcome, and that is peaceful resolution to these disputes, and in the meantime, adherence to the rule-of-law, rulesbased principles that the United States and Asean have heretofore very much agreed on,” said Mr Murphy, who is certain that the US will continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

Sure, the Trump administration has dismissed the pivot or “rebalance” as the policy of the Obama administration. But clearly, Mr Trump, while working on his own doctrine, apparently sees no issue with continuing with some of the old. Certainly, he shows no intention of tearing up things the way he did with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Mr Trump has met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe twice, and more recently, conferred with Chinese President Xi Jinping over two days. Next week, he meets Mr Turnbull. That leaves only one major part in the Asian jigsaw puzzle to patch: India.

The senior-most Trump administration official to reach New Delhi so far has been National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The Indians currently are having trouble with both Mr Xi and Mr Trump, although their issues with the former are far more serious. While Mr Obama, and particularly his defence secretary Ashton Carter, coddled India, Mr Trump has proved vexatious for New Delhi.

For now, while it is working on a Modi-Trump summit, New Delhi is not unaware that like Mr Obama and his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, many US leaders eventually come round to seeing its strategic value after starting out on a different path. Mr Abe, who is close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will no doubt use his access to Mr Trump to press for India and for the US to think more broadly of what can be accomplished in Asia. But, as long as Mr Trump’s fixation is on North Korea, and that is entirely justifiable for the moment, anything else will have to wait. Beijing knows this, and will be happy to keep Washington focused on Pyongyang, one reason for it to both seem helpful and yet not do too much about the matter. For now, China’s decision to adopt a mildly hunched profile before Mr Trump is working to its advantage. “I like him, and I believe he likes me a lot,” Mr Trump said of Mr Xi this week.

If the Chinese continue to play ball on North Korea, and lie low on further militarisation of the South China Sea along with some apparent movement on a Code of Conduct with Asean, it can expect to have at least the US commander in chief off its back. The Pentagon though is a different matter and it will continue to keep a wary lookout.

China should be aware that Mr Trump’s warm glow towards it is mostly transactional and comes from a perception that he is getting his way with Beijing. Should he be thwarted, anger will follow. A US president confronted with repeated political setbacks at home can act like a wounded bear overseas. What it all adds up to is that unlike Mr Obama’s nuanced and multi-pointed rebalance, Mr Trump’s approach is likely to lean towards the muscular mould as matches a personality that is more club than rapier. Certainly, there is no denying his flip-flops on so many issues, starting with his recent embrace of Nato and his reeling back of early positions on issues such as labelling China a currency manipulator and the “One China” policy he had questioned. On the other hand, he has been consistent in his position that Asian and European nations should do more towards their own security and certainly pick up the tab for it.

The Obama administration’s rhetoric often projected a nobler purpose, for instance, of protecting the global commons. For Mr Trump, it is all about himself, or to be a bit more generous, US interests. As long as the interests of much of Asia converge with his, and there is no reason why they should not, there should be no issue sharing the ride.

The writer is Associate Editor, The Straits Times. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.