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September 25, 2017

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Washington poised for pivot, ASEAN heaves sigh of relief

SINGAPORE -- The hand-wringers of the past five months who forlornly expected that wider Asia was poised to be cashed out by an America under President Donald Trump are probably breathing a bit easier lately.

Although Washington timed it poorly — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's visit to Jakarta coincided with the Indonesian capital's frenzied election to appoint a new governor — it is noteworthy that Mr. Pence pointedly drove to the ASEAN Secretariat to deliver a key message. The American president, he said, would travel to Asia to attend three important summits: the APEC meeting in Vietnam, as well as the ASEAN-U.S. and East Asia summits in Manila, the Philippines.

That the U.S. was in a hurry to state this so early in the day — the summits are only in November, after all — sends a few reassuring signals, even as the news in some ways was overshadowed by the spectacular election loss of the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta.

The first is that contrary to initial expectations, Mr. Trump may not be that averse to multilateral diplomacy if it suits his purpose. Secondly, it holds a measure of reassurance of continued American strategic commitment to the Southeast Asian region.

A hundred days into his term, there is much that Asia would wish of Mr. Trump when it comes to regional affairs. For instance, who doesn't pray that he'd move faster on so many key administration posts that remain unfilled, particularly in the State Department. The American spoils system that gives presidents an opportunity to bestow plum posts also means that key slots in Asia, such as the ambassadorships to Singapore, Tokyo and New Delhi, remain unoccupied. Indeed, with the exception of China, we do not even have names yet for these positions, not to speak of the confirmation process that lies beyond.

But that is the way the American system functions and we are stuck with it. Meanwhile, Asia perhaps can draw some relief that Mr. Trump is showing signs that as he settles into office, the briefings that he shied away from in his initial days are having their impact. National interests, after all, are permanent. Like every new leader in office, he also probably realizes that his predecessor wasn't as dumb or ill-advised as he had thought him to be.

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