Several months ago, administration officials envisioned the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting as a possible capstone to years of painstaking efforts to deepen trade, defense and diplomatic ties between the United States and East and Southeast Asia, the world’s most populous and fastest-growing region.
But Trump’s sharp criticism of trade deals such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, which still lacks congressional ratification, and his suggestion that long-standing U.S. military base agreements in Japan and South Korea might be too expensive to maintain, threatens to reverse the Obama administration’s agenda and upend decades of American leadership in the region.
“The governments in Asia are all very anxious,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for International and Strategic Studies and former senior Asia director at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
In a bilateral meeting with Obama on Saturday evening, Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced that anxiety as he sat across from the president at a long table, with both men flanked by several aides.
“We meet at a hinge moment in the China-U.S. relationship,” Xi said, through an interpreter, after Obama had thanked him for their cooperation on issues ranging from climate change to nonproliferation. “I hope the two sides will work together to focus on cooperation, manage our differences, and make sure there is a smooth transition in the relationship, and that it will continue to grow going forward.”
Although most of the president’s diplomacy here took place behind closed doors, he tackled those concerns directly Saturday as he spoke to an audience of 1,000 young people who had gathered in Peru to celebrate the administration’s new Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative. After a young woman asked whether concerns about Trump’s presidency were “for real,” Obama said he had the same message for her that he had been delivering to leaders in Greece, Germany and Peru during his last foreign trip as president. “My main message to you, though, is don’t just assume the worst,” he said, standing in shirtsleeves on a wide stage erected at the center of the Pontifical Catholic University’s gym. “Wait until the administration’s in place, it’s actually putting its policies together, and then you can make your judgments.”
But the president acknowledged that while the next administration may maintain several of his policies regarding Latin America, for example, “There are going to be tensions, most likely around trade more than anything else.”
During the campaign, Trum said Japan and South Korea are not paying “their fair share” to support the U.S. troop presence there. And he repeatedly attacked China as a currency manipulator and powerful global operator that had taken advantage of the United States under Obama’s tenure. He has threatened to slap high tariffs on China, and to withdraw the United States from a global climate agreement the Obama administration helped broker by courting cooperation with Chinese and Indian officials. Trump has already begun to reach out to Asian leaders since his election, meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York and talking by phone to the South Korean president. After meeting with Trump on Thursday, Abe said the two had a “very candid discussion” and said that he is “convinced that Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have confidence.”
Some Asia analysts suggest that while a vow to increase military spending in the region would be welcomed by leaders there, a de-emphasis on trade deals and a more realpolitik approach to diplomatic relations could prompt some Asia-Pacific nations to move closer toward China.
The president and his aides, for their part, sought to emphasize that officials should not jump to conclusions about where American diplomacy was headed.