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Report warns of arms race in Asia

Srinivas Mazumdaru | Cherie Chan
November 16, 2016

Continued US engagement in Asia is vital to maintain the regional order, a new report says. DW talks to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the report authors, on what changes he expects when Trump takes over as US president.

Bildkombo Donald Trump Xi Jinping

The Pivot to Asia has been one of the main focuses of US President Barack Obama's foreign policies. With the election of Donald Trump, the US approach to Asia is expected to undergo a major change.

A new report released by The Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organization, has warned that a leadership vacuum and even a nuclear arms race could start if the US withdraws forces from the region. It could also trigger massive destabilization of the regional order.

"A precipitous reduction of engagement in Asia would be detrimental to the interests of most Asian countries as well as the United States," the report says.

The Asia Foundation also advised Washington to avoid "narrowly nationalist or protectionist policies" even in the face of a troubled global economy.

With Trump's surprising victory in the US election, the Asian countries are unsure about how the US president-elect will translate his campaign pledges into actions, which are likely to affect the region's geopolitics and economic development.

In an interview with DW, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and one of the three authors of The Asia Foundation report, predicts a rise of Japan as a counterweight against China in the region. He also advises Trump to continue to support US' allies in order to maintain the regional balance in Asia.

APEC Gipfel China 2014
US President-elect Trump is likely to abandon President Obama's 'Asia pivot' policyImage: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

DW: How do you expect America's policy towards Asia to change after Donald Trump takes over as US president?

Thitinan Pongsudhirak: There is likely to be a qualitative change. The Obama administration staked heavily on its Asia pivot, while Trump's campaign of "America First" focuses more on the interests of the US in a unilateral fashion. However, the weight of the US foreign policy machinery will also maintain some continuity even with this predicted qualitative change.

Trump has lambasted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal and vowed to abandon it. How will such move impact US credibility and trade ties with the region?

The TPP is a critical and the most concrete component of President Obama's Pivot to Asia. Trump's presumed abandonment of the TPP in view of his election pledges will undermine US credibility in the short term. But in the long term, it depends on what kind of trade policy the Trump team comes up with. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ditching TPP will be bad news for Vietnam and Malaysia, but overall it is not the end of the trade world for other member states. The TPP is divisive for ASEAN because it only includes four of its ten member countries.

Shinzo Abe und Rodrigo Duterte
Thitinan Pongsudhirak: 'Smaller Asian states can seek an alternative counterweight, likely to be Japan' Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/I. Kato

How will China benefit from any reduction of US presence and influence in the region?

If the US withdraws from Asia in any significant fashion, China will be the beneficiary only to a certain extent because the smaller Asian states will then seek an alternative counterweight, which is likely to be Japan. We can already see that trend of opting for Japan as a hedge vis-à-vis China given the US shallow pivot and lack of follow-through.

What will your main recommendations for the president-elect be to ensure that the US retains its influence in Asia?

The US should remain engaged but it can reduce burdens by working with its allies, particularly Japan, as well as Australia, to a lesser extent. This new front of US allies confronting China, supported but not led by the US, could lead to a more balanced regional framework.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of The Institute of Security and International Studies at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.

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