At a March 14 press briefing, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Susan Thorton laid to rest the “rebalance” or “pivot” to the Pacific — at least in name. Thorton stated that the Trump administration had not determined how to frame its approach to Asia, or decided whether it would craft its own “bumper sticker” replacement phrase. The death of the pivot moniker comes as no surprise, given its close association with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Its official semantic demise naturally raises the question, however, of whether any of the policy initiatives that comprised it will survive, and indeed, whether the Trump administration will seek to develop a whole-of-government strategy for Asia at all.
President Trump could hardly disguise his glee as he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in his first days in office, and this was, of course, the economic pillar of the Obama rebalance to the region. The Trump team has said that it intends to pursue bilateral regional trade deals, but continues to emphasize its “America First” approach to trade, making it hard to see how this administration will advance an affirmative, unifying economic initiative for Asia. On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mid-March trip will facilitate much-needed bilateral engagement with Japan, South Korea, and China on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Given the Trump team’s skepticism towards the so-called international order, its lack of interest in democracy and development, and its desire to slash the State Department budget, however, this team may not place the same priority on international institutions or coalition building. Defense, however, may be the rebalance pillar that is likely to see the most continuity. There are several reasons why this is so.
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