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International relations

Trump engages Asia, but gives unclear message: former US officials

As America steps back on TPP, Asian countries find their own voice

Asian leaders viewed the attendance of U.S. President Donald Trump, back center, at the APEC Summit in November as important to American engagement in the region.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- President Donald Trump's strategy toward Asia remains murky a full year into his term, hindered by a dearth of diplomats to carry out policy, but the American leader has shown a willingness to engage with the region, former U.S. officials said Tuesday at an Asia Society event here.

Reviewing the impact of Trump's first year in office were Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. acting deputy trade representative, and Daniel Russel, who previously served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Cutler praised the Trump administration's participation in major conferences during his 12-day visit to the region in November, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East Asia summits. Asian leaders want the U.S. and its president engaged in the region, she said.

"And having worked for different administrations for many years, the 'showing up' was always very important," said Cutler, who now is vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

The bilateral meetings with high-level officials during Trump's trip also were "very important for U.S. foreign policy," said Russel, a senior fellow at the Asia Society. "That's the 'showing up' part."

But Russel also noted the number of U.S. diplomatic vacancies, particularly in ambassadorial posts to South Korea, Australia and Singapore. These absences "create real problems of both messaging and symbols," he said, and this "raises questions in the minds of many foreign diplomats."

Russel was reserved in offering explanations for the dropped nomination of Victor Cha for the South Korean ambassadorial position, amid claims that the move resulted from disagreements over the viability of a "bloody nose" first strike on North Korean targets to combat that country's nuclear and missile programs. But Russel did say the inability to agree on the appointment likely shows a difference of positions within the Trump administration itself.

"I would hope that in the coming months we'll see many of these vacancies filled," Cutler said, "because I think that's very important for our Asian colleagues and counterparts to be able to continue with their communication with the administration."

Some of last year's "good news" involves what the U.S. administration did not do, Cutler suggested. She expressed relief that no action came on many of Trump's campaign promises, such as the proposed imposition of a 45% tariff on Chinese imports and declaration of China as a currency manipulator.

"In my view, if those actions had been taken, we would have soon been in a trade war," Cutler said.

The former trade official, who helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, lamented the U.S. withdrawal just three days into Trump's term as a particular failing of the administration's first year.

"I think that's something, an action that people will look back on as a very serious mistake with time," Cutler said.

"It's not just the U.S. not getting the benefits from TPP, but we also have to keep in mind that other countries are filling the vacuum as the U.S. has exited and sort of stepped back from economic leadership in the region," she explained.

The other 11 nations in the agreement, including Japan and Canada, are moving to enact the TPP on their own. Though Trump later suggested a possible willingness to rejoin a renegotiated version of the trade deal, Cutler warned that any such effort would take time.

"I firmly believe the 'TPP 11' countries should go ahead on schedule, sign the deal in early March ... and then, over time, I think the U.S. can begin conversations with the individual TPP countries and see if there is a path forward," she said.

But by the time the U.S. is ready, she warned, it might be too late.

"I suspect that when [the TPP 11 negotiations] started ... they were kind of lost, but I believe over time they developed their own confidence and recognized they could do this without us," Cutler said. "And I think we are going to see that confidence being transferred to other areas as well."

"When we're ready to re-engage, it might be a bit different," she said. "I don't think it is going to be as automatic as maybe we would hope for."

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