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Asian Leaders Attempt to Decode Trump on the Future of Pivot

Donald Trump is set to tear up a giant Pacific trade pact and has questioned alliances that have defined America’s engagement in Asia since World War II. But it’s too early to declare President Barack Obama’s “pivot” dead.

For Asia’s leaders, a big question from Trump’s win is whether America’s military and economic focus on Asia will continue, given how Trump played on a populist mood at home and pledged a less interventionist foreign policy. With an increasingly expansionist China on their doorstep, many countries have looked to the U.S. to provide a counterbalance.

Now diplomats and analysts are parsing Trump’s comments and those of his advisers to try and separate his campaign rhetoric of “America First” from the reality of governing, even with the Republican party controlling Congress.

“Coming out of the campaign there was the perception that he was going to pull back and not get entangled overseas,” said Sam Crane, a professor of Chinese politics at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Based on the names being considered for key posts — Randy Forbes for secretary of the Navy for example — and commentaries by Trump’s inner circle, Crane said he “is going to be as, or even more, assertive than Obama.”

An article published last week by Trump campaign advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro said Obama’s policy was “talking loudly but carrying a small stick,” with the deployment of warships to Singapore and marines to Darwin “token gestures.” Under Trump the Navy would be expanded to “reassure our allies that the United States remains committed in the long term to its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia.”

Michael Pillsbury, an adviser to Trump’s transition team who worked in the Reagan administration, said the article was cleared by the president-elect.

Trump has been quick to speak with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia about his commitment to security ties. Even so, given his unpredictable style, it’s impossible to say what he will do in office. In one sign of nervousness over that uncertainty, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is stopping off in New York this week en route to a summit in Peru in order to meet Trump.

The full implications of Trump’s elevation for Asia are yet to be “fully appreciated,” said former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa. The country’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan said in an interview last week it’s too early to judge Trump, “but I believe the U.S. will see their national interest.”

“Let’s give him two months after he’s inaugurated to see what he’ll do,” Panjaitan said.

Read more: A QuickTake on China’s territorial disputes in Asia

The U.S. has been the dominant military presence in Asia since the end of World War II, though it has been in Asia for much longer, ruling the Philippines for a number of decades starting in the late 19th century. That position is in doubt not just because of Trump. China is seeking under Xi Jinping to become a global power, and is using its economic and military heft to push the U.S. aside.

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