Trump’s Muddled Asia policy

Nikhil Thiyyar

Washington is increasingly conveying mixed signals regarding how it wants to deal with the foreign policy challenges in the Korean peninsula. The results are not pretty

One of the notable picks in the Trump administration was General ‘Mad Dog’ James Mattis who now serves as the Secretary of Defence in the flailing administration. In the first week of June, Mattis made an attempt to reaffirm to Asian allies of the US, that America will continue to play the stabilising role that it has in the Asian peninsula for decades. Somewhere around the same time, news broke that Trump had gone to meet a group of Presbyterian ministers and bragged to them about the huge amount of support he had amongst Evangelicals. When the ministers clarified that they were not Evangelicals, Trump asked them what religious denomination do Presbyterians belong to. Ironically Trump is a Presbyterian himself. Foreign policy mandarins could not help but chuckle at the ineptness of Trump and the hollow promises of an administration that has to rank as the worst ever in living history.

Just days before Mattis made this speech that expounded on the themes of a global alliance, Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster along with his National Economic Council director Gary Cohn published an op-ed trashing every single that Mattis would later go on to fervently defend. The gist of the op-ed was: America will now follow a strict go-it-alone policy and the world order will be based purely on nations competing based on raw national power, alliances be damned.

A fortnight after the op-ed was published and Mattis had to publicly issue what was tantamount to a correction, American news channels were flooded with news about the tragic death of Otto Warmbier. Warmbier had been detained by Pyongyang for allegedly stealing a political poster. The Trump administration had been employing diplomatic back channels to get Warmbier and three others released, even if it meant paying a hefty ransom. The news of the death caused a media maelstrom and only Fox News went ahead to defend Trump’s foreign policy in Asia.

The cold, hard fact about Trump’s foreign policy is that there is none. Trump’s foreign policy is largely guided by a bunch of White House wonks and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. These aforementioned players routinely play a game of diplomatic musical chairs and whoever gets to decide the final course of action will invariably be the person who is in Trump’s good books on that given day.  

Consider the following facts. Forty-eight hours before Cohn and McMaster published the op-ed, the United States Navy conducted a military exercise in the South China Sea. The stated purpose of the exercise was to reaffirm the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The agreement has not yet been ratified by the US. Unless governments accept that inconvenient but mutually agreed upon rules have to mean, the US Navy’s assertion of its right to travel in the South China Sea is tantamount to an act of aggression.

 

On June 3rd, the United Nations Security Council expanded its scope of sanction against Kim Jong Un’s regime. A key part of the declaration read,” Unanimously adopting resolution 2356 (2017) under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the Council condemned, in the strongest terms, Pyongyang’s recent nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile-development activities, including a series of launches and other related activities conducted since 9 September 2016, in violation and “flagrant disregard” of various relevant Council resolutions.The Council reaffirmed its decision that the Pyongyang must abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, and immediately cease all related activities.” Such a strict set of sanctions would not have been possible in a world marked by countries going it alone. In fact, it is this very example of concerted and organised diplomatic action that serves as a ready repudiation of the misguided America-First policy that Trump and a few of the foreign policy hawks in his administration espouse.

The effects of these are already visible. Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has wrapped a report on the national security implications of aluminium imports. If the recommendations of that report are implemented then the guillotine could fall on friendly US partners rather than China that the Commerce Department is looking to target. Much of this protectionist policy is not likely to be applied to China, but instead to imports from countries like Japan and South Korea. Both of them are significant US allies. This move came close on the heels of the Congress urging the Treasury Department to block the proposed sale of Aleris Corp., an American aluminium manufacturer, to a Chinese firm, citing concerns over Beijing gaining access to advanced aluminium technologies used in defence. Experts have often pointed out that the US attempts to strongarm China could spark a full blown tariff war, something that will only hurt the US in the long run.  

Meanwhile, alarm bells were ringing in South Korea when North Korea fired four anti-ship cruise missiles into the marine waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, just a day after the new president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, put the brakes on an upcoming deployment of four American missile defense systems to his country. There is little indication that the new government in Seoul is looking to strengthen relations with the United States. Moon Jae-in has gone on record stating that Seoul needs to say no to Washington. This is a discomfiting fact considering that the US is a major trading partner, maintains 23,000 troops in the country, and sells billions of dollars worth of advanced military technology to Seoul.

Trump has shown no indication that he has much clue about how to solve the vexing problem of North Korea. It’s not clear whether China is interested in exercising its geopolitical leverage to defang the rogue regime of King Jong Un. Meanwhile, Moscow has filled the vacuum by stepping up its trade with the regime. Moscow has already replaced Beijing as the top supplier of jet fuel for North Korea. Moscow also signed a private agreement in March with Pyongyang to import more North Korean workers and opened a ferry line last month out of Vladivostok. Despite Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley publicly stating that any country that deals with North Korea will be publicly called out, the Trump administration has chosen to stay mum. It must also be noted that North Korea and Russia share a border that is the site for smuggling of illegal arms.  

As the US muddles around in murky waters, what are Asian governments(especially South Korea and Japan) to make of the mixed and confusing signals emanating from Beltway? Is the muddled foreign policy of Donald Trump a prelude to conflict or to meaningful and pertinent dialogue?