May 12, 2017 7:18 am JST

Trump's unpredictability leaves Asia adrift and anxious: experts

US becoming a destabilizing force, former Obama administration official says

ARIANA KING, Nikkei staff writer

NEW YORK -- As the nuclear threat from North Korea looms large from across the Pacific, U.S. President Donald Trump's abandonment of traditional American policymaking toward Asia creates worrying uncertainty, experts say.

"Trump has made the U.S. the most unpredictable actor in the international order," Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said during a discussion Wednesday at the Asia Society in New York. "You worry that even if things are calm, you're just one step away from a very big crisis." 

Nasr cited a lack of U.S. representation in Northeast Asia -- the absence of ambassadors in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing -- and a personalization of decision-making in Washington, where aides like Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner have more diplomatic clout than the State Department, as factors contributing to this anxiety.

This "vacuum of decision-making," Nasr said, gives North Korea an opening to push harder.

"If you're North Korea and you want to get something from Washington at this particular point of time -- or Beijing -- the strategy of lobbing missiles in the direction of the U.S. and Japan makes perfect sense," Nasr said.

Thomas Donilon, senior director at the BlackRock Investment Institute and national security adviser under former President Barack Obama, noted that Trump appears to embrace this unpredictability, putting the U.S. in the unusual position of being a major source of geopolitical uncertainty itself.

It's important to "articulate guiding principles" on policy, Donilon said, adding that the U.S. needs to put its allies first -- "a very important point that needs to be corrected on Asia," given the importance of allies in facing regional challenges. "Transactions don't do it," he said of Trump's deal-minded attitude toward international relations.

South Korea-Japan dynamic

With a new president in South Korea, Moon Jae-in, American relationships with allies might become even more complicated.

This week's South Korean election, occasioned by the impeachment of Moon's predecessor, came during a period of "an enormous amount of anxiety" about the escalation of tensions with the North, Nasr noted.

Ramping up tensions with China and North Korea without providing assurances to South Korea could put the six-party talks structure for the Korean Peninsula at risk, he added. "Not everyone is on the same page with sort of a unilateral Oval Office decision-making here," Nasr said.

Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, who also spoke at Wednesday's event, warned that shifting U.S. policy could also drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan.

As South Korea under Moon's leadership appears poised to take friendlier posture towards the North -- even raising the possibility of a visit to Pyongyang -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is doubling down on a hawkish security stance with a recent proposal to buy American Tomahawk missiles.

"If North Korea gets worse, if the U.S.-China relationship gets worse, the South Korea-Japan dynamic, which is not friendly, but is economically very functional, would suddenly become much more challenging," Bremmer said.

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