The Trump administration, after making a chaotic start at home, has started venturing abroad. Not surprisingly, Asia remains its big focus.
So far, Trump has managed to antagonize the Mexican president and the Islamic world as well as harangue the Australian prime minister and the French president. More interestingly, after reaching out to his Chinese counterpart via a letter in which he expressed a desire to form a “constructive relationship”, Trump decided to accept the traditional US approach of pursuing a “One China” policy.
US defence secretary James Mattis was in Asia recently as the first member of the Trump cabinet on foreign shores for talks with Japan and South Korea—two of America’s closest allies. This visit was an attempt to underscore the importance of Asia in Trump’s foreign policy matrix.
Expectations from the new defence secretary are high as he is widely viewed as a bulwark against an inexperienced White House. Trump’s pronouncements about the need for allies to pull their weight have led to some concerns in the region about his administration’s priorities. These concerns have been reflected in the promptness of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to the US immediately after Trump’s victory.
Abe became the first foreign leader to meet with him after his election when he visited Trump Tower in Manhattan the week after Trump’s victory. In Asia, Mattis tried to address the North Korean threat, China’s moves in the South China Sea, and calm jittery allies unsure over Trump’s campaign pledges to pull US troops out of overseas bases in the region.
In Tokyo, Mattis met his Japanese interlocutors but he did not ask them to cough up more to pay for protection from the US, as President Trump had suggested during the campaign. His most significant statement was a reiteration of the US defence commitment to backing Japan in its dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, which China has claimed as its sovereign territory and calls Diaoyu. Much like his predecessor, Mattis too reaffirmed that the uninhabited islands, which have large gas reserves in their territorial waters, are covered by the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the US.
Though he took on China by suggesting that it “shredded the trust of nations in the region” with the island-building and by using political pressure on states in the region, he refrained from calling for an increase in American military presence in the region. Abe’s visit to the US last week saw Tokyo offering direct financial, engineering and technical input for Trump’s proposed infrastructure development programme as well as other proposals for cooperation in cutting-edge technologies such as commercial aircraft, robots and artificial intelligence. This plan, the ‘Japan-US growth and employment initiative’, is the centrepiece of Abe’s outreach to Trump. Tokyo is hoping to embed the larger US-Japan relationship in the economic leverage that it can bring to bear on it.
In South Korea, Mattis addressed the controversy over the joint decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) battery in response to North Korean ballistic missile development. He had already reaffirmed American commitment to the deployment of a Thaad system to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles despite recent pressure from China to cancel the deployment.
In a veiled reference to China’s concerns that a Thaad radar could be used to look into Chinese territory, Mattis said “there’s no other nation that needs to be concerned about Thaad other than North Korea”. He, however, warned that if Pyongyang used nuclear weapons against the US or its allies, it “would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”
The regional response to the Trump administration’s initial moves has already begun. After hitting back at Mattis for his comments on the Senkaku Islands, Chinese warships cruised around the contested islands this week, in a likely response to Mattis’ remarks over the weekend that Washington “will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands”. The Chinese media is threatening Washington regularly these days for what it argues is an inflammatory approach by the new administration.
North Korea has test-fired the Pukguksong-2 missile, a surface-to-surface medium-to-long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, just when Abe was in Washington. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is making good on his promises to warm relations with China in contrast to the recent tensions between the two countries over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Other states are waiting and watching, given the unpredictability of the Trump administration. Despite the rhetoric, the new dispensation in Washington is largely following the path laid down by its predecessor for now. Structural constraints are proving too formidable to articulate an alternative response to rapidly evolving regional realities. But it’s not readily evident if this is sustainable in the long term, given the strong views of the US President and his inner team. At the moment, Trump is encountering the limits of presidential power, much like his predecessors.
Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College London.