HANOI - In a bid to fend off concerns about Donald Trump’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific area amid growing Chinese assertiveness — and perhaps shift the incoming U.S. president’s attention to the region — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up a whirlwind tour Tuesday where he worked to cement ties with key Pacific Rim nations.
Asian nations are cautiously watching whether Trump, with his “America first” rhetoric, will keep the United States focused on the region by strengthening so-called freedom of navigation operations and sending U.S. warships to the contested waters of the South China Sea to counter China’s military buildup, analysts said.
During his six-day trip, Abe met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. All agreed that Washington’s commitment is essential for the prosperity, peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.
Amid concerns that Trump, due to take office Friday, will shift to a more protectionist U.S. trade policy, Abe also confirmed with the leaders the importance of free trade. This, in the form of free trade agreements — including the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal — is key to the region’s growth. Trump, however, has cast a skeptical eye on these trade deals, even pledging to withdraw from the TPP in the opening days of his term.
“There is a need to deepen bilateral relationships with Asian countries at a time of uncertainty,” a senior Japanese diplomat said, alluding to Trump’s election in explaining Abe’s motivation for his first overseas tour of the year.
“If (Trump) sees that the Asia-Pacific region is essential to U.S. development and continues to be an economically attractive region, we hope there will be no change in the United States’ Asia ‘rebalancing’ policy,” the diplomat said.
Washington’s Asia “rebalancing,” or “pivot,” had been touted by outgoing President Barack Obama.
Tokyo hopes that Washington will continue exerting influence in the region as Japan faces China’s growing military presence in the East China Sea, where China has faced off with Japan over control of the Senkaku Islands, analysts said.
“A U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region is necessary to counter China’s assertiveness in the South and East China seas at a time when there is no reason for Beijing to soften its expansionary ambitions,” said Masafumi Iida, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, citing China’s intention to recover what it calls “lost territories” — including the Senkaku group of uninhabited islets.
In just the last month, Beijing has carried out a number of exercises to show off its military muscle.
This included the dispatch of its only aircraft carrier on what Beijing called a long-range open-sea training exercise, which saw it sail around Taiwan by way of the East China Sea, South China Sea and Taiwan Strait — a sign that it is seeking access to the Western Pacific.
China is also motivated to use its military power to protect and expand its maritime rights in the South China Sea, a busy shipping lane Beijing uses to import oil from the Middle East, Iida said.
China claims most of the South China Sea and has territorial disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Abe on Monday promised Vietnam six new patrol boats during his visit.
“We will strongly support Vietnam’s enhancing its maritime law enforcement capability,” Abe said, while emphasizing that the dispute over the South China Sea should be settled through talks and in accordance with international law.
The six new patrol boats have a total value of ¥38.5 billion and Vietnam will get a concessionary loan to pay for them, a Japanese official said. No timeline for delivery has been discussed yet. Japan had previously agreed to provide six used patrol boats to Vietnam.
“The competition between China and the United States in the South China Sea is set to grow — such a basic picture is unlikely to change even after the inauguration of Trump,” Iida said.
Trump has spoken little about the South China Sea issue, instead focusing on economic ties with China and threatening to label it a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on Chinese imports.
As for the U.S.-led TPP deal, which was reached with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries, it remains on life support, although Abe’s whirlwind tour was widely seen as a last-ditch effort to keep it alive.
Both Abe and Obama have pushed for the TPP so that Japan and the U.S., the largest economies in the bloc — which excludes China — can take the lead in writing “fair and transparent” economic rules.
As a part of the Asia pivot, the bloc was also envisaged as a foundation for strengthening security ties to counter China’s rise as the dominant power in the region.
“Without the TPP, the Asian policy of the United States could lose its initiative, while China may take advantage of the situation and step up its clout in the region,” said Sugio Takahashi, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies.