Government and governance, International relations, South China Sea | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

2 February 2017

The Trump era has given rise to tumultuous intergovernmental relations. Christian Wirth takes a look at what it will take to try and stabilise relations with the US’s allies and rivals.

The Trump administration’s disinterest, consequent lack of understanding, and loss of ideas about how to approach East Asian affairs will lead to the further strengthening of the military’s role and raise tensions with allies and rivals alike.

The Obama administration had already been trying hard to downplay the military dimension of its ‘Rebalancing’ or ‘Pivot’ toward the Asia-Pacific. Even if intended otherwise, it was ultimately the Pentagon that came to determine the perceptions, if not the contents, of the US strategy addressing the power shift toward China and the rise of the so-called Asian Century.

Due to the ideational and institutional legacies of World War II and the Cold War, including the ‘forward’ deployment of US forces and the crucial role of the People’s Liberation Army for securing Communist Party rule, military affairs have long carried great weight in Asia-Pacific international relations.

Unlike diplomats’ rather fleeting achievements and business people’s transnational dealings, defence officials’ actions and words bear immense symbolic power. Unlike the oftentimes confusing ups and downs of diplomatic negotiations, security strategies, at their core, remain unchanged for decades.

More on this: Trump is shredding the Washington playbook of foreign policy

Under Obama, the US strengthened its Pacific alliances, including with fairly modest but nevertheless highly symbolic increases of troop rotations through Singapore and northern Australia, and with the deployment of advanced weapons systems such as the Joint Strike Fighter. The Obama administration also promoted ballistic missile defence, most notably and much to the chagrin of Beijing and Moscow, with a recent push to extend the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to South Korea. Not least, the US Navy is about to redeploy more of its assets to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, shifting the centre of gravity away from the Atlantic. This rebalancing move came with the adoption of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine, a revamped Reagan-era concept for the offensive countering of what is being perceived and labelled as China’s Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. The assertion of freedom of navigation (for warships) through the South China Sea has been a major driver for, as well as an outflow from, this development.

The portrayal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement that excluded China, the single most important economic actor, as a strategic tool to strengthen the bases of alliance relationships and to pre-empt Beijing from ‘making the rules’ reinforced this revival of geopolitics.

While President Trump has already signed an executive order to withdraw the US from the TPP altogether, his administration aims at maintaining or, more likely, further reinforcing the US military posture.

This is no surprise because, in the present environment when conservatives marginalise alternative, more peaceful visions of the future, any significant change such as the partial withdrawals of troops or advanced equipment from South Korea or Japan – let alone the discontinuation of cooperation in ballistic missile defence – would herald the end of current political structures.

The establishment in Washington, and by consequence also in most East Asian capitals, would not only have to rethink the very basis of their foreign relations but also face challenges to their ways and – quite likely – their rights to rule.

Hence, alliance relationships mark a default position for US-East Asia relations. They are deeply embedded in the political cultures on both sides of the Pacific.

This function becomes more important when incumbent leaders fail to come up with workable ideas for how to relate to one another and how to address pressing concerns such as climate change, environmental degradation and economic instability and inequality.

President Trump’s exit from the TPP destroys a cornerstone of Prime Minister Abe’s economic policy and stunned US allies such as Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Trump’s false accusations that not only China but also Japan engage in unfair trade practices are reminiscent of the 1980s Japan-bashing and add insult to injury. This approach leaves not much else than the deeply embedded military ties to anchor the US in East Asia.

More on this: Trump’s missteps in opening negotiations with Beijing make a 'good deal' unlikely

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s seemingly off-the-cuff statements on the South China Sea – an issue that he is otherwise quite familiar with – suggests that leadership in this explosive matter is far from functioning either. The White House Press Secretary later essentially confirmed Tillerson’s rather hapless pronouncement that the Trump administration will seek to block Beijing from accessing the newly reclaimed outposts in the South China Sea.

In the absence of coherent strategies and comprehensible political communication, military and other officials dealing with alliances seem to be among the few who are able to maintain working relations with allies and – hopefully – prevent the escalation of conflicts with rivals.

Thus, it is no coincidence that it fell on the retired general and incoming Secretary of Defense ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis to manage US foreign relations. Amid President Trump’s repeated attacks on the foundations of transatlantic relations, Mattis had to reassure European allies that he won’t abandon NATO. For the same reason, he will travel to Japan and South Korea in coming days.

Yet, militaries are trained to identify and defend against threats, those kinds of threats that match their mental frames of reference and their prepared counter strategies. They are unable to mend and overcome antagonistic relationships among governments, let alone address other societal and economic problems.

Growing tensions will, therefore, certainly assure the continuing importance of the US and its military presence in keeping the house of cards standing. But, if US hegemony has been anything more than military might, then this course of (in-)action will be the beginning of its end.

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