Asia nervous over post-Obama era

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asean summit news conference laos obama sot_00023627

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Story highlights

  • David A. Andelman: Any substantial US withdrawal from Asia poses threat to US economic prosperity and security
  • Presidential candidates have offered little guidance on what their Asia policy would be, Andelman says

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Last week, just as Philippine and U.S. military forces were kicking off what could be the last of a half century of joint maneuvers, the Philippines' brash new leader told President Barack Obama he would likely be "breaking up" with the United States and that Obama could "go to hell." The comments were only the most public expression of the underlying fears being felt in much of Asia -- a region grappling with uncertainty over what the post-Obama era will bring.

David Andelman
This is hardly surprising. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact is on life support and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has questioned US support for key allies and seemed to call into question the American nuclear umbrella, leaving open the very real possibility of an Asia firmly dominated by China.
    Perhaps recognizing the shifting landscape, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last Tuesday warned: "I will be reconfiguring my foreign policy. Eventually I might, in my time, break up with America. I'd rather go to Russia and to China."
    But the concerns are far broader and deeper than the rantings of a single Asian leader. At a dinner I attended in New York last week, a senior minister of another Southeast Asia nation expressed his fear over a new nuclear arms race in Asia. Such fears were stoked earlier this year when Trump floated the idea of allies such as Japan developing their own nuclear arsenals.
    That Trump's pronouncements on whether the US is paying too much toward the defense of allies have caused such unease in the region reflects a simple reality -- the result in November is seen by many as holding the key to the region's future.
    "The biggest concern in Asia, the thing that you hear number one about right now is the United States," Kurt Campbell, CEO of the Asia Group and a key Asia adviser to Hillary Clinton in the State Department, told a symposium at the Council on Foreign Relations. "So the key variable in Asia, currently, is what's happening in the United States, and that's playing out before our eyes in the election campaign."
    And it's not just defense issues that have raised concerns about US policy toward Asia. Trump has, for example, pledged to halt US participation in TPP. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has for her part suggested that TPP "didn't meet [her] standards." Such rhetoric leaves Asian leaders with the impression that both candidates could leave decades-long allies of the United States twisting in the wind.
    Lurking in the background, of course, is a resurgent China that is ready -- indeed eager -- to enter any vacuum left by a strategic shift by a post-Obama America. Already, Beijing has held out a seductive alternative to the China-excluding TPP with its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes all 10 Southeast Asian nations, plus six Asia-Pacific powers, but which pointedly excludes the United States.
    Such proposals could prove alluring to some Asian nations, despite China's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. After all, China is a major trade partner to most countries in the region, and is positioning itself to further build on this. The Bank of China, for example, has established facilities in virtually every major Asian capital and many regional centers as well.
    Clearly, with China poised to step in to fill any vacuum, any substantial US withdrawal from Asia poses an enormous threat to America's economic prosperity and security. Remember, North Korea is developing missiles that could put the West Coast within striking distance of a nuclear-armed missile. And try to imagine the implications of a cash-strapped nation like North Korea deciding to sell its nuclear expertise to a terrorist organization with the will and capacity to unleash it on the United States and its allies.
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    The consequences of the United States backing away from Asia should be clear. True, much of America's focus has understandably been on the Middle East, terrorism and threat of a resurgent Russia. Yet we have also invested too much in Asia -- and have too much at stake there -- to let US influence and interest wane.
    Last year, the United States conducted $1.5 trillion worth of trade with Asia. So you would think that the region would be a key area of discussion in this campaign. Yet so far, there has been little guidance on what we can expect for America's future in this critical region.
    As a result, as Campbell noted, "There is a fear in Asia that some of the fundamental aspects of American foreign policy -- our strong commitment to our alliances, a nonproliferation agenda, our support for a comprehensive, realistic engagement strategy with China, strong support for defense -- that these sort of foundational aspects of American foreign policy are all in play."
    Sunday's presidential debate would have been a good time to start talking about this, but that event was hijacked by concern over Trump's personal failings fueled by that now infamous tape. There is still one more debate, and so still time to begin a conversation that should have started long ago. It's a process that cannot begin too soon. The whole world, and certainly Asia, will be watching.