Dissonance and infighting hit Trump's Asia policy

Far from being disciplined by the rituals and responsibilities of office, the Trump administration continues to be hobbled by policy dissonance and bureaucratic infighting.

To be fair, US President Donald Trump's highly-anticipated summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping went largely according to script. Although there were no specific agreements on thorny issues such as trade and North Korea, both sides agreed to establish new and effective mechanisms for high-level dialogues to properly manage areas of conflict and expand areas of cooperation.

United States National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who replaced Mr Michael Flynn, has played a key role in restoring the National Security Council (NSC) to its more conventional form, booting out ideologues such as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and restoring Mr Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence, and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the influential principals committee of the advisory body. The other victim of the McMaster-led shakeup is Ms Kathleen MacFarland, the former No. 2 at the NSC, tipped to become the next ambassador to Singapore.

Nonetheless, a cursory look at Washington politics nowadays reveals a flailing superpower in search of a coherent strategy, particularly in Asia. Both major and smaller regional allies and partners in the region may well worry about strategic neglect under the current American administration.

Meanwhile, China has fortified its position in the South China Sea and stepped up its economic charm offensive across South-east Asia, particularly the Philippines.

Nonetheless, tossing aside its predecessor's pivot to Asia policy, the new US administration has vowed to remain active and engaged in Asia, although under its own formulation.

US President Donald Trump has been in office for nearly three months, but his Asia policy has been far from encouraging, says the writer.  PHOTO: REUTERS

But almost three months into office, the Trump administration has yet to assemble a full-fledged Asia team, namely the senior officials in the State Department, the National Security Council (NSC) and the Pentagon, who are tasked with formulating, implementing and overseeing America's day-to-day policies in the region. Mr Matthew Pottinger, a veteran China hawk, is widely expected to take over as the chief Asia-focused figure in the NSC.

Partly, this is due to bureaucratic infighting and political vendetta. Both Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have failed to install preferred deputies in the Pentagon and the State Department, respectively, due to fierce opposition from the White House.

For instance, proposed undersecretaries Mary Beth Long (for the Pentagon) and Elliott Abrams (for the State Department) were reportedly turned down by the Trump administration due to their earlier participation in the Never Trump movement, which featured 150 leading Republican national security experts who opposed Mr Trump's candidacy last year.

Other prominent Republicans such as Mr Robert Zoellick (former World Bank president), Mr Tom Ridge (former secretary for Homeland Security) and Mr John Negroponte (former national intelligence director) were similarly frozen out. Dr Patrick Cronin, a widely respected Asia expert who was designated to become the director of the Pentagon-funded Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, reportedly became the latest victim of a seeming political purge of past critics.

The appointment of Asia-focused assistant secretaries has also been affected, given many leading experts' earlier criticism of Mr Trump's campaign agenda. The seeming prioritisation of loyalty over meritocracy could, and already has, left a discernible competence gap in American government.

The other area of concern is policy dissonance. After months of threatening to abandon allies and get tough on China, Mr Trump has ended up reassuring Japan of his "100 per cent" support, while repeatedly extending an olive branch to Beijing by emphasising cooperation rather than conflict.

In the South China Sea, the Trump administration initially adopted a tough language, contemplating a naval blockade against China and stepping up so-called freedom-of- navigation operations close to Chinese-made artificial islands in the Paracels and the Spratlys.

As a result, many South-east Asian countries were concerned about unnecessary and dangerous escalation in the maritime disputes. However, latest reports suggest the Pentagon has struggled to get the White House's permission to dispatch, on a more regular basis, larger ships and naval assets close to Chinese-occupied land features in the South China Sea.

However, the biggest area of concern is the prospect of diminished American leadership and optimal strategic engagement.

The US State Department, crucial to development of a nuanced strategy in Asia, is grappling with steep budget cuts of up to 28 per cent alongside personnel reduction, the purging of ambassadors from the Obama administration, and numerous resignations among demoralised members of the diplomatic corps.

As Mr Trump's generals and diplomats have warned, the massive reduction in America's overseas development aid will inevitably have a negative impact on American soft power and conflict-prevention strategy around the globe.

At the same time, China is rolling out major infrastructure projects under its One Belt, One Road and Maritime Silk Road initiatives. The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China, along with the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, are also expected to play crucial roles in bankrolling development projects across Asia with Chinese know-how and technology.

The Philippines, America's oldest ally in Asia, has received a pledge of up to US$50 billion (S$70 billion) from China, which recently sent both its commerce minister and vice-premier to Manila and Davao, the hometown of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has increasingly gravitated towards Beijing and away from Washington.

The Trump administration, which nixed the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) on its first day in office, has put no tangible economic initiative on the table, yet. And it is far from clear whether Mr Trump or any senior American official will meaningfully attend the East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' meeting later this year in the Philippines and Vietnam respectively.

So far, top American officials have been on a series of back-to-back visits to North-east Asia and Europe, but South-east Asia has been left out. Vice-President Mike Pence is slated to visit Indonesia in the coming days, but there are concerns that the trip will be mostly a jet fuel stop and vacuous exercise in handshake diplomacy, with no concrete agreements on the table.

While one can argue that it's still too early to judge the merits of Mr Trump's Asia policy, the first months have been far from encouraging. In the highly dynamic world of Asian geopolitics, time and initiative is of essence.

•The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines, and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, And The Struggle For The Western Pacific.

•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Dissonance and infighting hit Trump's Asia policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe