Across Asia, targets of Trump rhetoric look to the future

Throughout his campaign, Asian nations were a regular target of President-elect Donald Trump's speeches: China is a trade manipulator; Japan and Korea don't contribute enough for U.S. forces; the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal forged with 11 Pacific Rim nations, in part to isolate China, should never be ratified.

His anger could be palpable.

"We can't continue to allow China to rape our country." Trump said in a campaign rally, talking about Washington's trade deficit with Beijing.

But he could also shift quickly, noting: "I'm not angry with China ... China's great!"

So across Asia, politicians and analysts are wondering what role the Trump White House will play across the continent. Hard-line trade negotiator? Counter-balance to Beijing? Leader? Isolationist?

Few agree on the answers.



"The central question is: Will the U.S. continue to lead and what will be the quality of leadership at this critical juncture of geopolitical and political economic upheaval?" said Eugene Tan at Singapore Management University. "There will certainly be concern whether the U.S. will pivot away from Asia."

"Based on his campaign rhetoric and promises, he is off to a bad start in terms of engendering trust and confidence of U.S. allies and partners in the region."



North Korea, which raced ahead with its nuclear and long-range missile development during the Obama administration, will almost certainly be one of the most challenging security issues the Trump White House faces in Asia.

Despite heavy international sanctions, the North has conducted two nuclear tests and launched dozens of missiles this year. Pyongyang promises more are coming.

In South Korea, many worry a Trump presidency will bring a major shift in economic and diplomatic ties with Washington. Trump has questioned the value of the U.S.-South Korea security alliance, and hinted that he might be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The U.S. keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea.

On Wednesday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said South Korea must ensure that sanctions on North Korea continue "under the next U.S. administration."

North Korea did not comment directly on the elections, but a dispatch Wednesday from its Korean Central News Agency again ridiculed international sanctions efforts, pushed by the Obama administration, to press Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.

The sanctions have actually "emboldened Pyongyang to make a leap forward in the spirit of self-reliance," the article said, urging the international community to recognize the North as a de facto nuclear weapons state.

The article did not mention Trump, though the final line may have been directed at him: "It is high time (the U.S.) made up its mind how to deal with the nuclear power in the East."



Trump blasted China repeatedly during his campaign, but Beijing sees him as vastly preferable to Hillary Clinton, who China mistrusts over her guiding of America's diplomatic and military "pivot" to Asia and her willingness to confront authoritarian regimes. Many analysts said Trump's isolationist foreign policy will give China more maneuvering room to pursue its territorial claims in the East and South China seas.

"With Hillary, (the Chinese) know they will be constrained and confronted, whereas Trump may offer them new strategic opportunities," said David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

While China could take a serious economic blow if Trump follows through on his protectionist threats, few expect him to live up to all his rhetoric.

"There's no need to take Trump's trade protectionism too seriously," Dong Tao, Asia chief economist at Credit Suisse First Boston, wrote on his personal blog.

"He doesn't understand that the greatest beneficiaries of cheap Chinese products are the very grassroots American voters who lifted him to power," he wrote. "He doesn't understand that America has long stopped producing low-end consumer goods and suppressing Chinese products will not increase American employment."

"Chinese products have always been a target for attacks in elections, but once (the politicians) assume power, officials from the U.S. Treasury and State Department will give them economics classes."

Tao also noted that the Trans-Pacific Partnership has essentially "come to an end."

Without mentioning Trump directly, China's government noted there were long-established methods to deal with trade disputes with the new U.S. administration.

"I believe that as mature, large countries, China and the U.S. are able to handle such issues," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Wednesday.



Trump's election raised deep concerns in Japan over Tokyo's relationship with Washington, its top ally, given his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his demands that Japan pay more for American troops or risk having them withdrawn.

But his actual intentions, analysts underscored, remain unclear. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to meet Trump in New York next week.

"The key is how Japan can convince Trump of the benefits of maintaining a bilateral security alliance," said Asuka Matsumoto, an expert on U.S. diplomacy and security issues at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. "I don't think Trump's intention is to eliminate overseas U.S. bases. He is more business-minded, with a very short-term vision."

Japan's constitution renounces the use of force in international disputes, with the country relying heavily relying heavily on 50,000 U.S. troops stationed there as a deterrence.

While Abe's government has increased Japan's military role in recent years, he still believes the U.S. troop presence is key to regional stability, given North Korea's threats and China's increasingly assertive maritime activity.

But Sayo Saruta, an expert on Japan-U.S. relations at the Tokyo-based New Diplomacy Initiative, said Trump's presidency could allow Tokyo to shift away from the U.S. and toward more engagement with its neighbors.

"It would be a chance for Japan to develop a new proactive diplomacy," Saruta said.



Malaysia's prime minister, who the U.S. Justice Department has linked to a scandal over the alleged theft of several billion dollars from a state investment fund, welcomed Trump's "extraordinary victory."

Najib Razak, who could benefit from an isolationist U.S. policy, said in a statement that Trump won because he appealed "to Americans who have been left behind, those who want to see their government more focused on their interests and welfare, and less embroiled in foreign interventions that proved to be against U.S. interests."



India's Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, told Trump in a Twitter message that his countrymen "appreciate the friendship you have articulated toward India."

Trump praised Modi and his economic strategies, and said in an October rally that he appreciated America's "great friend India in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism."

But New Delhi also keeps a wary eye on Beijing, which it worries is growing too powerful.

Trump "will not be able to project power that American regimes, both Republicans and Democrats, traditionally have done," said Sreeram Chaulia of India's O.P. Jindal Global University. "So for us in India it will lead to complications because we expect Americans to do some of the heavy lifting for us regarding China. "



Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has kept a tight grip on power for decades by silencing critics with lawsuits and intimidation, noted that he'd announced his support for Trump days before the U.S. election.

"American voters have shown their choice to elect your excellency," he told Trump in a message on his official Facebook page, adding: "My support for your candidacy is not wrong either."


Contributors include: Annabelle Liang in Singapore; Ashok Sharma in New Delhi; Chris Bodeen and Gillian Wong in Beijing; Mari Yamaguchi and Eric Talmadge in Tokyo; Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.