by Kate Clark
At the beginning of his first term, in 2009, President Obama coined himself “America’s first Pacific president,”[i] marking a shift in the nation’s foreign policy priorities. This became widely known as the ‘pivot to Asia’. Asian countries were promising the fastest economic growth and the most pressing security concerns, earning the attention of policymakers and U.S. citizens. In the end, the pivot received mixed reviews, with many saying it did not achieve its intended goals, and left other regions of the world in the lurch, such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe.[ii]
Just this week, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said that the pivot to Asia was officially over. She affirmed that the new administration will remain engaged in the region, particularly on matters such as trade and security, but what form it will take is still up for consideration. One thing is clear: the Trump administration wants to distance itself from Obama’s legacy in the region.[iii] The Trans-Pacific Partnership, notable for opening up trade relations with countries in the region other than China, was scrapped within the first week of the presidential transition. Now, many eyes in the policy world are on the new administration’s interactions and intentions for our relationship with China.
Despite its hesitance to continue former president Obama’s rebalance to the Asian Pacific, the new administration has shown immediate interest in the region, sending two of its cabinet members to visit Asia within the first one hundred days. In early February, Secretary of Defense Mattis took his first overseas trip to Asia, making stops in U.S. allied countries South Korea and Japan to discuss key topics such as the South China Sea and North Korean missile tests. However, while in Tokyo, Secretary Mattis made controversial remarks, declaring that the U.S. would defend Japan’s claim on the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea, to which China has laid its own claim. The Chinese responded severely to these remarks, advising the U.S. to, essentially, mind its own business. They followed up on this response by sailing a Chinese warship past the islands as a show of military strength.