By Dr Subhash Kapila*
US President Trump’s first tour of the Asia Pacific in November 2017, nearly a year after assuming office, raises two questions in terms of estimative analysis— whether it was a strategic foray to a highly volatile region critical for US security or was it merely a diplomatic necessity, particularly in relation to China?
In November 2017, the United States cannot be oblivious to the reality that China’s ultimate strategic aim is to dethrone the United States initially from its Asia Pacific strategic predominance and ultimately exploit the ensuing decline of US power to emerge as the global co-equal of the United States. United States must therefore restrain itself from any deferential display towards China which increasingly has been positioning itself to fill the vacuum of a perceived decline of US power.
On the face of it, it seems to be a mix of both the above named components with the strategic foray imperatives predominating. Nowhere in the world is the United States’ global stature as the world leader and the predominant power in Asia Pacific more challenged than in this region by China.
The United States is under strategic siege in the Asia Pacific and militarily challenged by an aggressive and brinkmanship-prone China. China additionally besieges the United States through its wayward proxy protégé that is North Korea.
China has built up its proxy North Korea satellite into a nuclear weapons and missiles monster to levels where North Korea not only is a serious menace to US Allies in the region but also capable of striking Mainland USA.
President Trump’s Asia Pacific tour was to commence from China but better sense prevailed and this tour started with visits to Japan and South Korea before heading for China. Japan and South Korea have been enduring military Allies of the United States.
Japan significantly is the sheet anchor of the United States security architecture in the Asia Pacific. Japan has been an enduring ally of the United States and deserves more deferential acknowledgement from the United States. China has constantly worked to undermine US national security and is a powerful threat that the US has now to manage—-and nothing beyond that.
By doing so, President Trump validated Japan and South Korea as steadfast security Allies of the United States and this should have been so when contextually viewing China as the root cause of United States’ security and trade concerns in the Asia Pacific.
The United States needs the unstinted strategic, diplomatic and military support of both Japan and South Korea if it has to effectively counter North Korea’s unrestrained nuclear menace and so also to have in place a regional security counterweight system to balance a similar unrestrained military rise of China.
Analytically, therefore, President Trump’s Asia Pacific tour in November 2017 can be estimated as a ‘strategic foray’ to reassure its traditional Allies in the region that the United States stands committed to maintaining security and stability in the region.
President Trump enjoys a strong personal rapport with Japanese PM Abe and there are no doubts here. But in the case of South Korea, the new South Korean President Moon raised US concerns with his initial opposition to US THADD deployment in South Korea and also his efforts for a political outreach to North Korea.
Continuing the thread of strategic foray in the region, President Trump’s visits to Vietnam and Philippines can be estimated to have been an attempt to reinforce the growing US-Vietnam strategic proximity. In case of the Philippines, it can be estimated that the US President aimed the visit as a serious attempt to “reclaim” the Philippines as a firm strategic Ally of the United States. This was an imperative as the mercurial Philippines President went overboard in a political outreach to China soon after his inauguration. This has turned out to be disappointing for the Philippines President.
In view of the foregoing President Trump’s Asia Pacific tour covering Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines can be estimated not only as a strategic imperative but also strategically useful for the United States.
The China visit of US President Trump cannot be estimated as a strategic foray as in the preceding months the Chinese President did not honour the US President’s eff orts to enlist him to restrain North Korea’s nuclear belligerence and the threatening rhetoric against the United States. Chinese President Xi with his emphasis on using Chinese ‘Hard Power’ as a policy instrument was not and will not oblige the United States on the North Korean count.
US President could not have realistically hoped to dent the Chinese President’s obduracy on not restraining North Korea belligerence despite having emerged as even more stronger after the 19th NPC last month. Therefore, the strategic component would have been missing in the Beijing parleys.
Estimatively, one could conclude that US President Trump would have indulged in some plain-speaking with the Chinese President behind closed doors on North Korea. If it was otherwise then surely, United States image would take a strategic hit not only in relation to China but also in Asian capitals which do not view China through rosy prisms as the US pro-China Lobby in Washington.
Trade and investments issues are a sore point in US-China relations and here again, despite the rhetorical flourishes in Beijing and his personal effusive praises for the Chinese President cannot cover-up China’s manipulations on trade relations with the US and also currency manipulation.
China however seems to have attempted to silence United States pressures on trade issues by obliging the United States with billions of dollars contracts. Can the United States continue to be permissive on China buying US silence on its aggression in the South China Sea and the East China Sea and other strategic and military turbulences that it creates in Asia?
The above can be estimated as short term transactional financial gains for the United States but unlikely to transform the overall adversarial tenor of US-China relations. What needs to be noted is that while President Trump was more than effusive in personal praise of Chinese President Xi, no matching responses ensued from the Chinese President.
The China visit of US President Trump can be estimated merely as a diplomatic exercise in the overall attempt of the United States to” Manage China” on an aggressive trajectory in the Asia Pacific, while the United States undertakes other steps to contain China. In this connection, it needs to be mentioned that while US President was on the penultimate leg of his tour in the Philippines, the US Navy had commenced a major exercise off the coast of North Korea concentrating three Aircraft Carrier Groups—for the first time in this decade. Significantly, Japan also sent its Helicopter Carrier to join the US Navy exercise.
The message of the above to China by the United States should be seen as signalling that should China not restrain North Korea with its tremendous leverages, the United States and Japan have the military option on the table.
At this stage of this estimative analysis it becomes imperative as to what personal impressions US President Trump has formed over and above the professional briefs provided to him, after his 12 day tour of Asia Pacific including attending the AOPEC and East Asia Summit.
It would be fair to say that one over-riding strategic concern in Asia Pacific capitals other than Beijing would be the fear of an aggressive China moreso reinforced after Chinese President’s ascent to emerging as China’s 21st Century Emperor and the pursuit of his grandiose ‘Great China Dream’.
Strategic concerns in Asian capitals would be two-fold. Firstly, how far the United States would descend to kow-tow to China in the pursuit of US national security interests? Secondly, would the United States have the will to use military power to tame North Korea’s nuclear blackmailing? On both counts, the image of the United States takes a hit unless President Trump carries ot a mid-term course correction to allay Asian fears of China.
The oft-repeated theme in my SAAG Papers of the last fifteen years is that Asian capitals are not willing to accept two things from the United States cantering on China. Firstly, Asian capitals would not countenance United States having a conciliatory and differential approach to China while at the same time egging Asian Nations to confront China. Secondly, Asian capitals would oppose any United States efforts to co-opt China into a G-2 Condominium to manage Asian security and stability. The Obama Administration disabused its mind of this initiative well in his first term.
Concluding this estimative analysis one would like to assert that if the United States wishes to sustain its global and Asia Pacific predominance it can only do so by an unreserved commitment from Asian capitals and not by a US-China G2 Condominium. Can the United States or its Presidents be oblivious to the strategic reality that China’s avowed aim is to dethrone the United States from both these pedestals? That should be the fulcrum around which United States policy formulations on China should revolve.
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]