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Daniel Twining: Why Trump may be a net gain for Asia

Closer ties with Putin could prevent Sino-Russia domination of Eurasia

Donald Trump's comments and actions since winning the U.S. presidential election provide new insights into how his administration may impact Asian dynamics. Some course corrections on China policy would be welcome, but uncertainty in other areas could compound allies' anxieties and undercut U.S. economic interests.

Several of Trump's promised initiatives dovetail with Asian concerns, potentially creating new synergies for cooperation. Some of his proposed policies may actually put him in sync with Asian powers that take a more nationalistic line on the uses of military power and economic statecraft.

First is his plan to engage Russia, overlooking its revanchism in Europe and meddling in American elections. A new U.S.-Russia entente could align Washington with Tokyo and New Delhi in prizing Russian leader Vladimir Putin away from his quasi-alliance with Beijing to prevent Sino-Russian domination of the Eurasian heartland.

Trump is also more in sync with Asian counterparts in his determination to use state power for geo-economic gain. His threats to impose punitive tariffs on China, and to create leverage for trade negotiations with Beijing by playing the Taiwan card, resemble China's own carrot-and-stick approach to economic engagement. A U.S. trade policy approach tinged by mercantilism might resemble Japan in the 1980s, when bureaucrats colluded with Japanese corporations to make them agents of Japanese statecraft abroad. It could also mirror Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attempts to use state power to drive growth through economic diplomacy and official exhortation, including the "Make in India" campaign.

Trump's nationalism is more in tune with the nationalistic surge underway in India, Japan, China and the Philippines. This could lead to greater cooperation, as leaders of these countries do deals directly with each other over the heads of more cautious bureaucracies.

A U.S. policy shift toward China may also be welcome in a region reeling from Chinese assertiveness and uncertain of America's commitment to the security of its allies. Trump takes a hawkish line on China's militarization of the South China Sea and unfair trade practices. He may be compensating for former President Barack Obama's passive response to China by adopting a tougher stance against Beijing's efforts to enforce an Asian Monroe Doctrine. Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson has promised senators a more hardheaded U.S. approach to the South China Sea dispute under Trump.

Trump also aims to ramp up U.S. defense spending. His advisers criticize Obama's "pivot to Asia" as more talk than action and want to rectify this through an accelerated naval buildup. This could reassure Asian allies who question U.S. staying power in their region.

America's new president has also put China's leaders off-balance by pledging to strengthen U.S. support for Taiwan. Trump has been unconcerned about respecting Chinese sensitivities about the island: As he reasonably argues, why should Washington tiptoe around Beijing's concerns over Taiwan when China fails to respect America's on freedom of navigation and unfair trade?

Trump's appreciation of the value of the U.S.-Japan alliance has also increased since his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 17. Abe left the meeting reassured that, despite campaign rhetoric that questioned the value of the alliance, the president-elect understood its utility, including Japan's role as a model host for U.S. forces.

THIS COULD GET UGLY But there are serious downside risks as well. Trump threatens a break from long-standing U.S. commitments to alliances, free trade and diplomacy with China. This risks producing strategic instabilities. It could also lead to conflict, as nations define their interests in zero-sum terms, and as the prestige of strong leaders is conflated with diplomatic outcomes in ways that lead to angry standoffs over pride and principle. This is a particular risk with North Korea, whose reckless young leader is likely to test Trump with another ballistic-missile or nuclear-weapons test.

Some of Trump's proposed policies could also threaten Asia's economic miracle. He has repudiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and announced the appointment of senior trade officials who promise a more protectionist posture. In reality, delivering on Trump's mandate to restore rapid economic growth will require enhanced trade and investment access to teeming Pacific markets. Perhaps his administration could negotiate a bilateral U.S.-Japan trade agreement or split the TPP into smaller sectoral agreements.

In a more rivalrous Asia, Trump's nationalism and determination to restore American strength could make the U.S. more competitive. However, this is likely to produce results only if he pursues effective policies to empower American economic, diplomatic and military leadership -- including by investing in the alliance relationships and trade deals that help underwrite pan-Pacific prosperity.

Daniel Twining is counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and a former member of the U.S. secretary of state's policy planning staff.

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