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The Trump Era: Asia's View

Jan. 20, 2017

Hello and welcome to Newsroom Tokyo’s special coverage from Singapore. I’m Sho Beppu. Today, in Washington, DC, Donald Trump is going to assume the presidency at an inauguration ceremony.

For Asia, this is a crucial event. Trump said after his electoral victory that he would have the US withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, the TPP, on his first day in office -- a decision that is seen as a major shift from the Obama administration’s policy of pivot to Asia.

Asia’s emerging economies have been riding the tide of US led globalization and Singapore is one of the best examples of the region's rapid economic growth. That is why I flew out from Tokyo to bring you this special coverage about Asia’s reaction to the new US president from this city state.

And, hoping that it would be more interesting to you, we hired this bus to move around so that we can get a better look at various parts of this city during our live broadcast. We are now at the Marina Bay area.

Since breaking away from British colonial rule more than 50 years ago, this country lifted itself up from a third to a first world economy in a generation. The city state's first Prime Minister, late Lee Kuan Yew, was a strong advocate of free trade and deals like today’s TPP.

Trump is supposed to become the US president in about 6 hours. Let’s first take a look of the latest developments in Washington, DC.

"I promise you that I will work so hard. We are going to get it turned around. We are going to bring our jobs back. We are not going to let other countries take our jobs any longer. We are going to build up our great military. We are going to build it up. We are going to strengthen our borders," US President-elect Donald Trump said at a welcome concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he also said he would work for everyone.

Opinion polls suggest he faces an uphill struggle. One survey says 54 percent of Americans already do not view Trump favorably. Pollsters give him the lowest approval rating for an incoming president for 40 years.

Thousands of people have already demonstrated against the president-elect in Washington. Many groups plan rallies in the capital during and after the inauguration ceremony.

In New York, actor Robert DeNiro joined a protest rally in front of Trump International Hotel.

"Whatever happens, we Americans, we New Yorkers, we patriots, will stand united for our rights and the rights of our fellow citizens," de Nirosaid.

What the TPP Means for Asia

What is this TPP all about, and why does it mean so much for Asia and the United States?

The signing ceremony for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was held almost a year ago. This came after a series of tough negotiations that started in 2010. The deal seeks to create the world's largest free-trade zone by slashing tariffs and setting rules for members.

Twelve countries in Asia and the Pacific -- including Japan, the United States, and Singapore -- are part of the TPP. Combined, they account for about one-third of the world's GDP.

Singapore broke ground as part of a trade grouping that would become a basis for the TPP. That was in 2006, when it combined with New Zealand, Chile and Brunei on trade.

The US expressed its wish to join the framework in 2009, and President Barack Obama looked to the TPP also as a means to counter China's rising power in Asia.

"Asia pacific economies will grow faster than the world average. That's why we want to pursue trans-pacific-partnership which would facilitate trade and open markets throughout Asia-Pacific," Obama said.

The agreement is to take effect within 2 years -- if member countries go through with ratification processes. But with Donald Trump taking over as US president, getting the accord implemented seems unlikely.

"I'm going to issue a notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential disaster for our country," Trump has said.

Despite Trump's comments, Japan has continued to push to put the deal into effect and to keep the US on board.

"The TPP is meaningless without the participation of the US," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

During recent visits to Australia and Vietnam, Abe reaffirmed that the countries would continue to work together to put the TPP into force. Australia's prime minister has expressed a similar sentiment.

"It is also very important evidence of a very important strategic commitment by the United States to the Asia-Pacific," said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Change and Continuity Under Trump

I talked with Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Mr. Tommy Koh, who was previously posted to Washington and is known as an expert on Asia-US relations. I asked him about Asia’s view on Trump’s presidency.

Beppu: Well, the world is carefully watching, watch the new U.S. President and how he would carry on his diplomacy. From an Asian perspective, what are your expectations?

Koh: I think Asians, some, expect continuity but also change. There is a sense of hope and optimism, but also some concern and worry So it’s mixed feelings, you know. American politics tend to be very volatile. It could go from one end of the spectrum to the other end of the spectrum. So the world has got used to the fact that every 4 or 8 years, you could see a swing of the pendulum, and we are indeed watching such a swing.

Beppu: How important do you think that he maintains friendship with America’s traditional Asian allies?

Koh: The US-Japan security alliance is a permanent and fundamental pillar of US policy as well as Japan policy. It is not just good for these 2 countries, but it’s good for the whole region. And I’m going to tell you that as a Singaporean, as an Asian, I was reassured that Japanese Prime Minister Abe was able to have an early meeting with President-elect Trump in November last year. And I think the Prime Minister Abe came away reassured that the new president will be as committed to the US-Japan security alliance as his predecessors. This is good news for the region.

Beppu: Now, talking about the concerns, well for Asia, President-elect Trump has said before that on his first day in office, he will have the US withdraw from the TPP. We don’t know yet how and if it will be done, but if done, how do you think that would be perceived from Asia?

Koh: I think it will be perceived negatively. Not just among the 11 partners of the TPP, but Asia in general. And Asian countries would worry whether or not this gesture reflects an overall protectionist attitude towards trade. So there’s a bigger worry, you know. Is it just TPP? Or is it a negative attitude which the new administration will have towards free trade in the world?

Beppu: Do you think that it could signal the end of the era of free trade, and also could it signal the beginning of an era of protectionism?

Koh: There is a danger that in Europe, as well as in America, there is the rise of populism, a revolt by many people against free trade and globalization. So there is this danger. Whether the danger will actually come to pass in the United States, we will have to wait and see.

Beppu: Do you think that if the new president decides to pull out from the TPP, do you think that it could be perceived in Asia that the U.S. administration made a U-turn from Obama’s administration’s pivots to Asia?

Koh: We don’t know whether the change is confined to trade policy or whether it’s more than that. So, the pivot to Asia, or rebalancing with Asia, is a much larger policy, and in a way, I don’t see how the next president can disagree with some facts. The facts are that the Asia-Pacific has become the most dynamic economy in the world. The fact is that the U.S. will become increasingly dependent on investment with trade with our region. So whatever the preferences of the new leader may be, there are certain facts that he can’t run away from.

Beppu: Can I understand that you’re saying that, frankly speaking, this decision will not help America’s economy?

Koh: It will not help America’s economy and it will not help America’s role in the world. I would point out respectfully to our American friends, that for 70 years, the United States has been the champion of a liberal economic order in the world. It is a world, it’s an order that benefited America, that also benefited Japan and the ASEAN countries, and many countries. It will be a great shame if after 70 years, the United States were to turn its back on what it has created, and what it has championed for 70 years.

In the same way, for 70 years, the United States has played a leading role in the maintenance of peace and security in our region. It has benefited both America and the region. Why should America make a U-turn on this policy? It makes no sense.

Beppu: How do you think Beijing will see such a U-turn, if it happens?

Koh: I think China’s No.1 foreign policy objective is to avoid conflict with the United States. So if you ask me, I think the Chinese leaders in Beijing hope that they will continue to enjoy a stable relationship, stable relations with Washington, rather than a rocky relation. But whether their hope will be realized or not, we do not know because, as you know, the President-elect has threatened to name China as a currency manipulator, he has threatened to enforce a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. If he carries out these threats, it will precipitate a trade war between the United States and China. This will hurt both of their economies, but it will be a disaster for all of us.

Singapore Cautious Over Ties
Hideki Yabu

As Ambassador Tommy Koh pointed out, there are concerns the US may step back from its leading role in this part of the world. Some say that this will lead to a more assertive and imposing China. In fact, here in Singapore, an incident has some worried that this is already becoming a reality.

In November, Chinese authorities in Hong Kong seized 9 armored personnel carriers used by the Singaporean military. The vehicles had taken part in a military drill in Taiwan, and were being transported on a cargo ship back to Singapore.

Customs officials in Hong Kong have yet to clarify why the vehicles were seized. But Beijing has expressed frustration with Singapore military's drills in Taiwan.

"We want countries, including Singapore, to strictly observe our one-China policy. This is a basic prerequisite for developing ties between China and all other countries," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang.

Singapore's own territory is very limited, so it often goes to other parts of the world to conduct military drills. In 1975, it started drills in Taiwan, and continued them even after it cut diplomatic relations in the 1990s.
Commercial vessels are often used to transport necessary equipment to cut costs but this never led to problems in the past. Singapore has long benefitted from the economic growth of China, its largest trade partner. And it has turned itself into a world-class financial and logistics hub. Now the government in Singapore is worried that the incident could cause friction with Beijing.

"Our relations with China and our interactions with Hong Kong and Taiwan, are based strictly on our One China policy. Singapore’s relations with China and our relations with other major powers should not be seen as a zero-sum game," said Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Singapore has maintained close ties with the United States. While Singapore has no territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, the country places importance on the freedom of navigation and flight, and gives the US the right to use some of its military facilities.

The US military uses an air base in Singapore for its P-8 maritime patrol aircraft on missions in the South China Sea. The US has also deployed its state-of-the-art littoral combat ship in Singapore. Both pieces of equipment have played an important role in US efforts to keep China's increasing maritime presence in check. That was a key policy of President Barack Obama, who aimed to "pivot" US foreign policy towards Asia.

Earlier this month, outgoing US Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar said that the US, not China, will continue serving as the security pivot for Singapore.

"I say to every Singaporean, take us out of the equation. Ask yourself, what would Singapore have to do for China to not be unhappy with it? And will you be willing to do it?" Wager said.

While strengthening economic ties with China, Singapore has deepened its security with the US. But China is increasing its presence in Southeast Asia in all aspects, and experts warn that it will become more difficult for Singapore to deal with China.

"Singapore has been in the spotlight from Beijing, particularly over Singapore's statements in support of the permanent court of arbitration's finding and in support of international law, generally speaking," said Alexander Neill, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia. "So we've had the case of the Terrex Armoured Personnel Carriers. We've had diplomatic spats with the media in Beijing. And these are all symptomatic of a growing conundrum for Singapore."

NHK World's Hideki Yabu joins anchor Sho Beppu for more insight.

Beppu: How is the government of Singapore trying to solve this problem? Do they have a concrete strategy?

Yabu: The vehicles were seized almost 2 months ago, but there's still no sign when they'll be returned. The Singaporean government is claiming that the armored vehicles are sovereign property and that Hong Kong has no right under international law to seize them. They are taking a legal tack to avoid making it into political issue with China. But neither China nor Hong Kong has yet to give a specific reason for the seizure, and the case is likely to drag on for some time.

Beppu: The US plays a key role in Singapore’s national security strategy. Do people expect that to change?

Yabu: There is no indication that the close security ties between the US and Singapore will change in the near term. As a small city-state, Singapore has always focused on maintaining a strong defensive capability. The US presence in the country and the region certainly adds to Singapore's security and neither the government nor the people expect that to change. However, there is concern about how Mr. Trump will proceed with the pivot to Asia. He has been asking allies to cover more of the cost of a US presence, and the government is closely watching what the US engagement with Asia will be like under the new administration.

Dr. Lim Tai Wei, an expert on East Asia, joins anchor Sho Beppu. Please watch the video above to see the full interview.