This week around Asia

The Yang factor, Admiral Harris, and Trump-Modi summit

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. It is exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition.

From the moment it was announced that China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi would lead his side in the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue that was held this week in Washington, foreign affairs pundits in Asia had some idea of what to expect. 

Mr Yang, who looks younger than his 67 years, is the kind of negotiator you send when you have bad news to deliver, such as “Sorry, we aren’t budging on any of our positions. Too bad if you don’t like it”.

As foreign minister, the position he held before his elevation four years ago to the current role, Mr Yang reportedly told his Singapore counterpart at a particularly tense China-Asean meeting in Hanoi in 2010 that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”.

Interestingly, while the US delegation was co-chaired by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, China made clear that Mr Yang, who outranks his foreign minister, was sole leader for its side.

General Fang Fenghui, a member of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department, “also participated” in the dialogue - that was the way Xinhua described the role of the ranking military man on its team sent to Washington for the talks.

Mr Tillerson, at the start of the talks, called for “direct and very frank” discussions on areas where the two have differences or face threats. It would seem he got them.

On North Korea, China made it clear that negotiations with Pyongyang were the only realistic way out of the morass. It also stuck to its “dual-track approach” to promoting denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and establishing a peace mechanism in parallel and a “suspension for suspension” to defuse the looming crisis. What that means is Pyongyang may suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-South Korea military exercises.

China also demanded that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system the United States has deployed in South Korea should be withdrawn.

 
 

As for the South China Sea, it was clear from the start that Beijing had no intention to budge. The day before the Washington talks, a Chinese delegation to Vietnam led by General Fang Changlong abruptly cancelled fence-mending border talks, possibly after intense closed-door discussions on the South China Sea issue.

China seemed to have taken its firm position on that issue to Washington as well. At the talks, it asserted “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters and every right to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime rights".

In hindsight, it was never very clear why the US and China, which had already established an annual joint meeting of their defence and foreign ministers called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, should have added on a US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue to the list of contact points. Perhaps US President Donald Trump’s antipathy to anything initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama may be one reason.

The worrying thing is that ties between the two countries may be set for a sharp downturn, after the promise of an easier relationship following the Trump- Xi Jinping summit in Mar-a-Lago. That is because the strategic calculations on both sides offer few meeting points. As I said in my blog last week, the Chinese seemed resigned to this eventuality, the reason Beijing has sought to take a softer line with Tokyo latterly and its willingness to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at summit level.


Then Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping looks at vases full of soybeans and corn as then Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (Left) looks on during a visit to the Rick Kimberley family farm, in Maxwell, Iowa, on Feb 16, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS

That said, it looks like Mr Trump will proceed with his state visit to China this year. Next week, Mr Terry Branstad, the new US ambassador to China, arrives in Beijing to take up his post. Also, the Chinese will host Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, the influential Jared Kushner, aside from a meeting between the two Presidents on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. While no one expects open hostilities, it does look as though the situation could be heading for what the late John F Kennedy once described as a “hard and brittle peace”.

Modi Sees Trump

One Trump meeting which Asia will be watching closely next week is the visit to the White House by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Unlike Japan and China, India has not shown a rush to engage with Mr Trump, even as officials in New Delhi were clearly sick with worry that the real estate tycoon-turned politician will overturn the fast-advancing strategic relationship set in motion by the Clinton administration and elevated by the Bush and Obama administrations.

 
 

 During Mr Obama’s last years, the US had begun referring to the Asia-Pacific as the "Indo-Pacific" in tacit recognition of New Delhi’s widening strategic footprint.

Ahead of the meeting, the US seems to have sweetened the atmosphere by clearing the US$2.5 billion (S$3.5 billion) sale of 12 deadly Predator drones for the Indian Navy, which already has the P-8i Poseidons, the most advanced US military reconnaissance planes. It has also picked Mr Kenneth Juster, an India expert who serves on Mr Trump’s economic council, as its next ambassador to New Delhi.

India’s Hindu nationalists see a kinsman in Mr Trump, who has been open about his sentiments towards a significant portion of the Muslim world. Its politicians and strategic planners though have to be more nuanced, lest a far too tight embrace trigger unease in Russia, a longstanding ally, and Beijing, its powerful neighbour. For this reason Indian officials have not talked up the summit too much.

One indication of what they expect from the talks is that Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has scheduled an important speech in Singapore two weeks after the summit. That talk, which is focused on the South Asian power’s relationship with Asean, would not have been scheduled if New Delhi did not have something important to say.

Who will replace Admiral Harris at Pacom?

As head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris is well-known around Asia.

 
 

He is also seen by many as a hawk on China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, one reason perhaps why Chinese media have sometimes stressed his Japanese-American roots.

According to Reuters, which quoted two sources with knowledge of the matter, Adm Harris - although he has no official term limit on his appointment - is expected to step down next May, when he finishes three years in the job. Beijing has not looked too kindly on Adm Harris since he described its island-building as a “great wall of sand”.

Asian diplomatic sources say Beijing thinks Adm Harris was too close to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during whose time the US announced its "pivot" to Asia and she, herself, described this as “America’s Pacific Century”. They believe that he owes his gaining his fourth military star to Mrs Clinton’s influence with the White House and the Pentagon.