Speaking Of Asia

A Trump hammer on Asian nails

If the US under President Trump chose to go it alone in Asia to confront China, that would sit uncomfortably with a region that abhors conflict

Asians trying to decode United States President Donald Trump's strategy towards their region - and indeed, wondering if there is a strategy at all - have more to ponder upon, now that the first senior administration official is due in their region next week.

Interestingly, it is not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is well-networked in these parts, but Defence Secretary James Mattis who is travelling to Asia. That this is General Mattis' first overseas trip in his new role is significant. That it will take him to Japan and South Korea suggests that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is top of Mr Trump's mind, if it is not about getting both these nations to pay more for the American security umbrella.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Gen Mattis had said that "the Pacific theatre remains a priority in my mind". Now he is showing he can be good on his word. Those who'd lamented that Mr Trump's key appointments suggest that the new administration would have a "Centcom, not Pacom" view of the world will be a bit reassured that Pacific Command has got some early attention.

Perhaps it is time to take another look at Mr Trump's inauguration speech. Coverage of that address tended to focus largely on his isolationist slant on trade and other issues. Yet, in the very first minute he had also vowed to "determine the course of America, AND THE WORLD (emphasis added), for many, many years to come". Further along he had promised to "reinforce old alliances and form new ones".


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Although the context for the latter remark was the fight against radical Islam, it is fair to assume that you cannot possibly expect to determine the course of the world by staying at home. Mr Trump, despite his reputation for having a short attention span, would surely have taken a good look at the draft speech and added his own input. So, the words were not accidentally placed.

The question is whether wider Asia and its various issues also matter to Mr Trump, and to what degree. Of that, the evidence is yet to be presented. Asean, for instance, was a word that Mr Trump did not utter during his entire campaign.

True, there are some recent statements from his key people that have aroused interest. Mr Tillerson's remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing, for instance, suggested a tough line on the South China Sea: "We are going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed."

Even if those words were spoken off the cuff, they come from a seasoned executive trained to not over-speak. For the same reason, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's comments on the same issue also merit attention. "It's a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper," Mr Spicer said, "then yeah, we're going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country."

Who knows, there just might be a plan after all.

MILITARISTIC BENT

If one does exist, it will have the backing of the grey eminences of the Republican Party that have been wringing their hands at then President Barack Obama's apparent unwillingness to confront China. Last June, meeting on the fringes of the Shangri-La Dialogue with Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, I was taken aback at the vehemence with which both spoke about China's assertive behaviour. Senator McCain suggested that the US President should assemble a team of 10 of his best generals and diplomats - including people like General David Petraeus, Lieutenant-General Sean MacFarland and the diplomats Kurt Campbell and Ryan Crocker - to discuss how best to tackle China. "They'll know what to do," he said.

While the names may differ, the militaristic bent of people given charge of defence, homeland security and national security, not to speak of the National Security Council (NSC) assembled by Mr Trump, suggests a group that has little patience for nuances. This is quite unlike Mr Obama's NSC, which had a sprinkling of think-tank types.

Meanwhile, the State Department's likely No. 2 is Mr Elliott Abrams, a former White House and State Department official who a quarter century ago was involved in secret operations to arm and fund Nicaraguan rebels during the Iran-Contra affair.

This plays to Mr Trump's personality. Like other strongmen leaders in Russia, China and India, his is very much a go-it-alone sort of personality that has little time for the careful structures and multilateral efforts attempted by Mr Obama. Indeed, critics say the former president's major weakness in handling China was that he tended to act too much like the community organiser he was before entering politics.

This suggests a raw edge to come in American foreign policy that might seem attractive to some. In the long run, though, it will sit uncomfortably with an Asia that abhors conflict, is reluctant to take sides and essentially seeks good behaviour all round so people can focus on improving their lives. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow said a half-century ago, if all you have is a hammer the tendency is to treat everything else as a nail.

Do not expect Mr Trump, therefore, to expend too much presidential time on meetings such as the Apec and East Asia Summits.

CHINA SEEKS COMMON GROUND

China, which rooted for Candidate Trump because of its distaste for Mrs Hillary Clinton, architect of the American pivot to Asia, may wish the results turned out otherwise. Although Chinese spokesmen have responded to Trump administration officials with their own bluster, Beijing has clearly begun to take the new President very seriously. In hindsight, seizing the American underwater drone in international waters as a farewell slight to Mr Obama - clever and audacious as it seemed then - was ill-advised.

President Xi Jinping's Davos speech outlining a commitment to open trade at a time when America is "locking itself in a dark room" was more evidence of China's leader casting himself in the role of the anti-Trump.

Some analysts believe this also is why it quickly dusted off Mr Jiang Zemin's policy of qiu tong cun yi (seeking common ground) and presented it on Jan 11 as a new White Paper for Asia-Pacific cooperation. The last thing China wants to see is a G-2 arrangement whereby the second party is not itself, but Russia.

Interestingly, the paper, while asserting that China would step up its regional and global security role, advised medium-sized and small nations to avoid taking sides when it came to dealing with big powers. That is an indication of where Beijing thinks the situation is moving to.

Elsewhere in Asia, Mr Trump arouses mixed feelings. Myanmar is likely to feel little pressure from him on the tricky issue of Rohingya Muslims, Thailand's military ruler and the President of the Philippines - the latter has come under pressure from the powerful church over his policy of eliminating drug runners - will probably welcome an American President who does not preach to them on domestic issues. Indeed, President Rodrigo Duterte has already recalibrated his approach to China in a mild way as he waits for Mr Trump to show his hand.

Likewise, Indians are gladdened that the first Asian leader he called since taking office - following conversations with the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Saturday, Israel and Egypt on Sunday - was Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

That euphoria could be short-lived. Mr Trump may feel a sense of kinship with India on account of a shared wariness of extremist Islam. But he has said he would crack down on H1B visas, a matter of critical importance to India's outsourcing industry and its skilled engineers. Neither will he have any sympathy for Mr Modi's "Make in India" policy.

Besides, a president who is averse to multiculturalism at home cannot be expected to have a kindly view of other cultures. For the same reason, no Malaysian leader, especially one likely to call elections soon, can afford to be publicly too chummy with Mr Trump.

Asia also needs to prepare for a presidency that's going to be distracted by domestic issues. The unprecedented women's march the day after the inauguration, Mr Trump's stated desire to roll back Obamacare and his moves on sending back illegal migrants and a hostile media all presage a period of deep unrest at home for one of the most unpopular men ever to take the world's most powerful position. It will be a miracle if he finds time for a deep look at Asian issues.

Departing US vice-president Joe Biden probably said it best when he likened attempts to figure out Mr Trump to studying a Rubik's cube. "We have no freaking idea what he's gonna do!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'A Trump hammer on Asian nails'. Print Edition | Subscribe