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Analyst: Looking Ahead to Trump’s Asia Engagement

FILE - Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump stands on stage during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
FILE - Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump stands on stage during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

In about two weeks, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. He faces a wide range of domestic issues, several of which were key in securing votes in swing states during the November election.

Since then, however, President-elect Trump has ventured into diplomatic waters through his tweets. Once he takes office, Trump also will have to deal with a number of pressing global concerns.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be the first to present a challenge to a newly-inaugurated President Trump, after Kim signaled that the North would conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test. It’s a weapon, when perfected, that could reach the continental United States.

The EastWest Institute’s Jonathan Miller says while many people carefully analyzed the nuances of outgoing President Barack Obama’s messages, Trump’s tweets should be viewed with broader strokes.

“My biggest concern, with regards to the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea,” says Miller, “is that it needs to maintain solidarity with its allies, such as Japan and South Korea. So there’s a concern …that Trump might just go it alone and look for bilateral negotiations. That’s exactly what the North is looking for.”

Trump taking a call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will also present some diplomatic challenges, since he has publicly questioned the longstanding tradition of honoring the “One China” policy. When Washington established ties with Beijing in 1979, it cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan, recognizing the communist-led People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, or “one China.”

Miller, however, says, “I also think the South China Sea is going to continue to be an area where the U.S. loses leverage. We even saw that in the final days of the Obama administration, so I think China is going to continue to press hard in the South China Sea.”

During the U.S. election season, territorial concerns in the South China Sea were not a major part of Trump's campaign. It is not clear how the incoming president will approach the issue once he takes office. The subject marks Asia's most expansive sovereignty disagreement involving six claimant governments. The United States is not among them.

Each year, more than $5 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea, which is filled with rich fishing grounds and believed to hold oil and natural gas.

Moving forward, Miller says it’s important to focus on the interactions the incoming president has with other nations, since he expressed ideas in a transactional matter.

“It looks like he might engage with allies and partners in a bilateral perspective. We’ve definitely seen that in a trade realm …But we could potentially see this from a security perspective, too,” said Miller, referring to regional multilateral organizations, like ASEAN, or trilateral meetings, such as the US-Japan-South Korea summits. How President Trump proceeds in that area towards Asia, is one factor Miller says to watch.