Trump’s Asian Strategy Remains a Riddle

Trump’s Asian Strategy Remains a Riddle

The US President Donald Trump has assembled an eclectic team and who amongst the team mates represents his authentic voice on foreign policy remains to be seen. The recent visit by the United States Defence Secretary James Mattis to South Korea and Japan may have only added to the confusion.

Perhaps, Trump himself is the lone voice of his Administration, while all others are, to borrow the words of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, mere walking shadows – «poor players who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then is heard no more».

Mattis’ choice of Seoul and Tokyo for his first business trip abroad prompted interpretations. Some said the Trump administration stated its commitment to the ‘pivot to Asia’. Such a laboured point can be made, perhaps, since the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is moribund and the ‘pivot’ strategy is floundering. Optimists hope that the ‘pivot’ will remain an American foreign policy priority for a foreseeable future.

A columnist wrote this week in Straits Times that the US’ «abandonment of the TPP is more likely to be a signal that the US will seek better trade deals, than a ‘lights out’ for its involvement in Asia. The US will stay here, but is likely to ask for a higher appearance fee». It sounds plausible. After all, the US needs to generate synergy to create jobs and stimulate economic growth through trade and investment ties, while Asia can be a pillar to consolidate America’s leadership in global governance.

In the event, Mattis’ visit left an impression that the US intended to continue with the Barack Obama administration’s policies in the region, which clashed with the more muscular approach towards China that State Secretary Rex Tillerson – or Trump himself – have advocated. In particular, Mattis’ remark that solution to the South China Sea problem must be found on the diplomatic path and that there was no need for any «dramatic military moves» by the US takes a leaf out of the Obama rule book.

It puts him at odds with Tillerson who would have liked the Pentagon to block China from accessing the artificial islands it built, even risking a potential showdown. Tillerson is on record as saying, «We’re going to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed». Tillerson’s views were also echoed by the White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

Therefore, the big question is: Who has Trump’s ear – Mattis, or, Tillerson and Spicer? This becomes important because Mattis also forcefully articulated Washington’s commitment to the alliance with Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, what added to the confusion was that just on the eve of Mattis’ trip to the region, Trump himself had a nasty phone conversation with Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia, a long-standing ally of the US in the Asia-Pacific that has been a permanent participant in the US’ bloody wars in recent history.

Of course, that was no way to treat an ally. Australia is one of America’s staunchest allies, sharing intelligence and shedding Australian blood to support American military interventions – be it in Afghanistan or Iraq. No US president ever hung up on an Australian counterpart, cutting short a planned hour-long phone conversation to just 25 minutes. But Trump did it.

Nonetheless, Mattis insisted, while in Tokyo: «I made clear that our longstanding policy on the Senkaku Islands stands – the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such, Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty applies». No doubt, it was significant that Mattis echoed the Obama administration’s stated stance. But at the end of the day, Tokyo must be wondering whether Mattis’ remark marked a definitive shift in tone from Trump’s own complaint voiced earlier that the security treaty was «one-sided», and his implied threat that the US could withdraw forces from military bases in Japan and South Korea if those countries did not pay more for protection.

A poll conducted last week by Yomuiri Shimbun newspaper showed that 80 percept of respondents worry about Japan’s relations with the US. The Japanese daily Mainichi commented editorially, «We praise Mattis’ visit to Japan and South Korea up to a point, but still have significant worries about future US involvement in the region… it’s certainly possible that Trump will make decisions linking economic and security issues». Again, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, while welcoming Mattis’ statement, hinted that Trump may not necessarily have the same views as his Pentagon chief, and Tokyo would like to hear it afresh from the new administration «on various occasions».

The underlying, unspoken angst is that Trump may prioritize the Asia-Pacific region as a market, investment destination and source of capital and technology, and that might ultimately provide the raison d’etre of any continued strong and active US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Put differently, once the dust of transition settles and Trump administration shifts gear, it may factor in the criticality of pragmatic cooperative relations with China, which might set the tenor of US-China relations and in turn modulate America’s strategies in the Asia-Pacific.

In the final analysis, therefore, Mattis’ visit may have only set the stage for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Trump in the weekend. The two plan to play golf, but Abe is carrying with him big Japanese investment plans that promise to create jobs in the US economy. The Japanese media reported that he called in Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyada to discuss the car maker’s plans to build new factories in the US. Abe will be accompanied by his finance minister. Japan is under pressure to pay, as often in its post-World War II history of relations with the US. How Trump, the archetypal American businessman, reciprocates by voicing US’ diplomatic and security support for Japan will be keenly awaited. If Mattis’ statements are any guide, he may not go beyond proforma remarks.

The wild card here is Trump’s North Korea policy. As much as reaffirming US’ alliance with South Korea and Japan, Mattis had the goal of coordinating with the two countries regarding the North Korean nuclear threat. Now, if Trump’s intention is to pursue the North Korean issue through the diplomatic track, it involves intense negotiations and close coordination with China, which must begin sooner than later.

Beijing can be trusted to welcome such engagement – and even proactively want to build on it. Japan may be anticipating such an eventuality. Following the talks with Mattis talks on Sunday, Foreign Minister Inada disclosed that she had specifically conveyed to him that Japan will not involve its forces in the South China Sea.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese comments on Mattis’ visit to the region have been more for record. Trump’s protectionist agenda; his ‘neo-mercantalistic’ outlook; his preference for bilateral trade deals and the abandonment of the TPP – all this deals a practical blow to the US’ pivot to Asia. Simply put, the containment strategy becomes unsustainable without the underpinning that TPP would have given.

Time works in favour of China. China can be expected to accelerate its goal of an early conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that brings together 16 Asian participating economies, and on a parallel track advance its agenda of boosting integration in the Asia-Pacific region. China may have already secured an opening to tilt the geopolitical balance in Asia in its favour.