This week around Asia

Trumped up and ready to go

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. Exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition, his blog will be uploaded on Saturday mornings.

Ever been on a supercarrier like the USS Carl Vinson, now sailing toward the West Pacific as US President Donald Trump turns his attention, sporadic as it is reputed to be, toward the fraught situation on the Korean Peninsula?

Believe me, the experience is beyond awe  in fact, that's the whole purpose why the US has about a dozen of these magnificent machines of war.

I once passed the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in Hongkong Bay and my junk took an eternity to pass that mammoth from bow to stern.

At exactly a third of a kilometre – longer than Tiger Woods could get a golf ball in his prime – the Carl Vinson is even bigger.

Last year, I was fortunate to be invited on board during one of its visits to Singapore – the last was as recently as this month when it was ordered on its return sail to divert towards Korea, rather than its planned destination, Australia.

Standing on the observation deck of the vessel, which really is a floating city complete with prisons and restaurants you know why this is the ultimate weapon of sea deterrence, even more fearsome than a dozen ballistic-missile submarines, or SSBNs.

That's because unlike the subs, whose mission is to run silent and run deep, this one is all about making a noise, and very visibly too.

This boat had particular resonance for another reason: It was the vessel from which Osama bin Laden's body was dumped in the sea after US special forces killed him inside Pakistan and spirited away his body.

Carriers never sail alone.

Like admirals trailed by staff officers, they come with a retinue. Similarly, the Carl Vinson has its own accompanying ships.

When a carrier battle group sails in your direction it is wise to sit up and take notice, even if you are named Kim Jong Un and in the habit of thumbing your nose at foes and friends alike.

What of North Korea, heck even the Chinese get nervous at the sight of a carrier battle group in the vicinity.

 

And if you were the guy who was having dinner with Mr Trump when Syria got a rain of Tomahawk missiles fired from US gun boats, wiping out a quarter of its air force, you don't want the US Navy poking at your soft underbelly. Or, as the Singlish saying goes, don't play-play.

Little wonder that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who didn't seem so helpful on the North Korean question at the Mar-a-Lago summit, used his newfound access to Mr Trump to give him a call to discuss the subject.

Possibly, Mr Xi may have gone home and consulted his generals before doing so.

Whatever went on in that conversation, it does seem that Mr Trump was rather pleased.

Unsheathing his Twitter handle, he told the world: "Had a very good call last night with the President of China concerning the menace of North Korea."

Perhaps we can look forward to a peaceful Easter weekend after all and not feel compelled to constantly check the news feeds for news of an outbreak of war.

These worries aside, now that Mr Trump has held office for three months, he seems to have had a little more time to think Asia.

Witness:

  • Mr Trump is sending Vice President Mike Pence to the Indo-Pacific region. Mr Pence is the listening ear of the administration and a man of vast experience. His ten-day swing will see him travelling to Hawaii, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra and Jakarta. Having got off to a poor start with Mr Trump, Australia's Malcolm Turnbull will be the leader  most interested in briefing Mr Pence. Aside from everything else, Australia is America's oldest ally  their partnership, which now includes intelligence collection and sharing aside from military operatons started in 1914. Julie Bishop, Mr Turnbull's foreign minister, has been urging the US to take a deeper interest in Asia, with Asean at the core of that policy.
  • Talk is that Kathleen T MacFarland, the television personality picked by former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn to be his deputy has been bounced out of the White House after losing a power struggle. It seems almost certain that she is headed to Singapore as ambassador, taking the place of the energetic Kirk Wagar, an Obama groupie who helped with his successful campaign in Florida in 2008 and 2012. Regardless of what happens in the corridors of the White House, this, unquestionably is a plus for Singapore. Like Mr Wagar, Ms MacFarland will arrive with the cell-phone numbers of every key administration official. Nothing like having an effective envoy who can cut through the haze if you are a small country that needs to be heard in Washington.
  • Ms Lisa Curtis is headed to the White House to advise Mr Trump on South Asian affairs. Currently at the Heritage Foundation she is an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ms Curtis is said to advocate continued US engagement with Pakistan while maintaining a strong US partnership with India. Among her early tasks will be to arrange a summit between Mr Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indians have been more patient than the Japanese and Chinese in seeking an audience with Mr Trump, figuring they are better off seeing him after he's settled into his job. Knowing Mr Modi, a spectacular joint public appearance with Mr Trump would probably be on the cards. India's right-wingers love Mr Trump, although some of their ardour has cooled since racial attacks on Indians in the US mounted since he assumed the presidency.
 
  • To Russia, without love. Unlike Britain's Boris Johnson, who cancelled a trip to Moscow after the chemical gas attack in Syria on Moscow-backed Bashar al-Assad's watch, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not only travelled to Moscow, but also met his old friend President Vladimir Putin. The downward spiral in US-Russia ties, while cheered by America's miiltary-industrial complex, is not a positive for Asia because of its potential to pull the sanctions-hit Putin more into the welcoming arms of China. Southeast Asia's interests, particularly, are best served by having all major world powers independently engaging the region, not showing up hand in hand. Some think the insecurities triggered in Mr Putin by the actions of the Obama administration led to the crisis in Ukraine, which has set a poor example for the world and made small powers wary of the unilateral actions of regional hegemons and their ability to get away unpunished for their sins.

Until next week then...