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United States: Trump Administration and Asia-Pacific; By Carlyle A. Thayer

, dated February 27, 2017

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C3S Article no: 0017/2017 

We request an assessment of POTUS’ [President of the United States] first month in office from the foreign policy perspective, and especially from the Asia/Asia-Pacific perspective.

Specifically, has anything actually changed after the weekend with Shinzo Abe and the conversation with Xi Jinping? While the US-Japan alliance has received a ringing endorsement (also in the face of the North Korean missile test), there remains scope for friction with Beijing, possibly very soon over trade.

ASSESSMENT: The Trump Administration’s foreign and national security policies are a work in progress. The firing of Michael Flynn has made policy coherence within the National Security Council all the more difficult. The fact that senior staff to the Departments of Defense and State have not been nominated, let alone approved, means that policy coherence is also lacking in line ministries. What seems to be happening is that Donald Trump is walking back on some of his more provocative campaign statements. Prime Minister Abe has been adept at getting in the door first, first to call the president-elect and first to be received in The White House. Both the President and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have reconfirmed the U.S. commitment to the mutual security treaty with Japan. But economic issues – such as Japanese investment in infrastructure development in America – are still up in the air. The bottom line is that the Trump Administration has provided much-needed reassurance to Japan and South Korea. But no outline of a U.S. policy for East Asia in general or Southeast Asia is discernable.

Trump’s telephone call with Xi Jinping would not have taken place without Trump walking back on his earlier comments that the One China policy was negotiable. The fact that the two leaders spoke is also a positive tentative step forward. But, as with Japan, key economic issues, which are a real irritant in relations, remain unresolved.

The Trump Administration has not held one Cabinet meeting because several nominees have yet to be approved. Michael Flynn’s successor probably will be announced this week. Whoever is appointed will have to use his/her elbows to establish a workable pecking order for the Office of the National Security Council. But more disruption and delay can be anticipated when President Trump begins to overhaul the national intelligence agency community.

Under the terms of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986, the President must submit a report on the national security strategy of the United States to Congress each year.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: c.thayer@adfa.edu.au. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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