Uncertainty regarding America’s relationships with Asia-Pacific nations has “increased exponentially” with the election of Donald Trump, the outgoing leader of the East-West Center said Wednesday.

In one of his final acts as president of the center, Charles E. Morrison spoke at a luncheon for major donors to the Honolulu organization about the center’s accomplishments under his leadership, as well as what Tuesday’s presidential election result means for EWC’s future.

Morrison, who announced his pending retirement last year, finishes an 18-year run as head of the center next month. The new president, Richard R. Vuylsteke, takes office at the beginning of 2017.

outgoing East-West Center President Charles Morrison. 9 nov 2016
Outgoing East-West Center President Charles Morrison at a luncheon Wednesday honoring his 18 years of service to the EWC. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Since its establishment in 1960, EWC has become a “go-to place” for Asia policy analysis and research for the U.S. government, Morrison said. “Our standing with the current executive branch could not be better,” he remarked, pointing out that President Barack Obama has visited the center twice during his presidency, most recently in August just prior to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.

But colliding international interests in the Asia-Pacific Rim, including the United States’ “Asia pivot” of the past several years, have increased the complexity factor of relationships throughout the region, particularly between the United States and China.

“We face uncertain times, and I would say the uncertainty increased exponentially yesterday,” said Morrison, referencing the presidential election and the consternation it has caused in many countries abroad, “since the future U.S. foreign policy, including in Asia, has yet to be defined.”

Morrison sees no immediate implications for the EWC from the coming Trump presidency, but noted that the center could be of significant help in a critical part of the world to a president without a background in foreign policy.

The U.S. relationship with China outpaces the importance of all others in the region, he said.

“There’s no country more important to the U.S. than China, and no country more important to China than the U.S.,” he told members of the Friends of the East-West Center group.

Donald Trump had harsh rhetoric for China during the presidential campaign, including a promise to place a 45 percent tariff on China imports.
Donald Trump had harsh rhetoric for China during the presidential campaign, including a promise to place a 45 percent tariff on China imports. Gage Skidmore

Trump’s harsh campaign rhetoric on China, which has included threats to put a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports, might be seen as problematic to some in that nation. But he may be greeted with greater enthusiasm than many expect by Chinese nationalists, who might see Trump as potentially less focused on human rights and issues in the South China Sea and more focused on trade and business.

“He’s done business with (Chinese interests) and with Singapore,” said Morrison. “They feel like they can do business with him.”

While little is known yet regarding who is advising Trump on international affairs, Morrison believes friends of EWC on Capitol Hill will be helpful in acquainting the new administration with the singular center, which has an office in Washington, D.C., and regularly has programs and activities both there and in locations around the Asia region.

One of the center’s seminar alumni, for instance, is U.S. Rep. Kevin W. Yoder, a Kansas Republican who is an Appropriations Committee member and was an early endorser of Trump last May.

And EWC interests will have more potential champions in Congress with familial or cultural connections to Asia-Pacific Island nations.

Three Asian-American women, for example, will serve in the U.S. Senate beginning in January, just four years after Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono became the first. Along with Hirono, new senators Kamala Harris of California and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — the latter of whom knows EWC from her days as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii — may be helpful, given their personal understanding of Asian-Pacific interests and opportunities.

In the House, Colleen Hanabusa of Honolulu, who is returning to Congress after two years away, will join 10 other Asian-American colleagues, raising total representation to 14 — the most ever in the House and Senate.

It all adds up to expanding opportunities for the EWC and a growing need for their services, said Morrison — points he explored in his remarks as a series of propositions.

“The EWC might not be needed – if the U.S., China, Japan, (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), India and everyone else in the region were getting along just fine, but they are not,” said Morrison. “If all the economic, environmental, demographic, social justice and governance issues were being solved or addressed effectively by other institutions, but they are not.

“If Americans had a really solid understanding of the enormous complexity of Asian and Pacific island societies, and if those societies had a clear appreciation of American interests and ideals, but that also is not the case. If there were other well-crafted, multinational educational programs focused on the Asia-Pacific region as a region, but there are not. … So the market for our services is robust.”

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