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Many Question Marks over Trump's Asia Policy
An investor walks past a screen showing stock market movements at a securities firm in Hangzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on January 11, 2016. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Question Marks over Trump's Asia Policy

Walter Russell Mead

Even though some around Washington spoke in hushed tones about the outside chance that President Obama might try to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in a lame-duck session, the likelihood of such a scenario playing out was always vanishingly low. And as of Friday, the nail is in the coffin:

A sweeping Pacific trade pact meant to bind the U.S.and Asia effectively died Friday, as Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress told the White House they won’t advance it in the election’s aftermath, and Obama administration officials acknowledged it has no way forward now.

The failure to pass the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership—by far the biggest trade agreement in more than a decade—is a bitter defeat for President Barack Obama, whose belated but fervent support for freer trade divided his party and complicated the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Asia is waiting to see whether the Trump Administration will merely ask to revise the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal—perhaps press for a few high profile changes, and then revive it — or if the U.S. is really moving away from what most Democrat and Republican foreign policy experts think is an indispensable component of America’s strategic stance in Asia.

This is only one element in the strategic uncertainty now gripping Asia: what will Trump’s policies there be, and what will they mean for long-time U.S. alliances? The chances are that despite some campaign rhetoric, Trump will end up standing by Japan, Australia and other key U.S. allies in the region. If there is one clear strand in his foreign policy thinking, it is that China should be the first concern of American economic and foreign policy. But it also seems clear that Trump has not studied the details of Asian policy; as he and his staff come up the learning curve, they may find themselves embracing the logic of policies that they have critiqued in the past.

It’s going to take time for the new Administration to organize its thoughts about Asia, and to assemble the team that will manage the Pacific portfolio for President Trump. China will use the delay and the uncertainty for its own purposes, and the potential for dramatic steps and even some kind of major crisis in the region cannot be ruled out.

But the long term trends in Asia favor America’s presence there more than many observers acknowledge. China’s growing internal difficulties and the danger of economic stagnation there, along with the rise of nationalist sentiment in countries like India, Korea and Japan, make it difficult for China to impose its own architecture on the area. But American uncertainty and fumbling could offset those problems; the Trump administration must move quickly to establish a clear path for American policy in Asia, and that policy will have to be broadly acceptable to our friends and allies.

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