By M.R. Josse
NEW YORK, NY: By the time this is published, American President Donald Trump will have returned to Washington after a hectic 12-day, five-nation tour through East Asia having taking in three important bilateral visits – Japan, South Korea and China – and two regional summits – in Da Nang, Vietnam (APEC) and Manila, the Philippines (ASEAN).
Though it was generally expected that a complete, credible assessment of Trump’s maiden diplomatic foray into East Asia would be possible at this time, significantly, a plethora of policy pundits now believe it is premature to attempt such an exercise as the results of many of the processes initiated, or discussions held, during his extended politico-strategic demarche are yet to surface.
This includes issues related to free trade. In this regard, it may be recalled that, early in his administration, he withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which he lambasted as unfair and, on his recent trip abroad, has tried to lay the groundwork for a series of bilateral trade deals that he says will be more balanced.
The eventual outcome on this score remains to be seen; in the meantime, the eleven other TPP nations have committed themselves to what remains of that trade arrangement, following the exit of the United States.
Be that as it may, though it is hazardous to make a categorical evaluation of Trump’s odyssey in terms of America’s foreign/security policy interests or dynamics, I do believe it has revealed a number of key markers.
Perhaps the most consequential is the patent centrality of America’s relationship with China, particularly in the urgent context of defusing the North Korean nuclear/missile threat to East Asia – and the United States.
Against that backdrop, it was illuminating to read a nervous Wall Street Journal commentary by Andrew Browne that highlighted fears that “US allies worry Trump will pull a Nixon in China” and which then went on suggest that “such diplomacy could essentially create a G-2 with the US and China carving up the world.”
Another evocative headline – this one from the New York Times – is this: “Business deals, not trade pacts, as US executives visit China” – a news commentary that, indirectly, also underlined or vividly recalled a vital component of the turbulent saga of the America-United States relationship.
Leaving such hyperbolic speculations aside, it would seem, at least from this distance, that Trump may in fact have laid the groundwork for what could – eventually – become a unified or consensual approach to Pyongyang – that is, between the US, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.
Talking about Russia, it is noteworthy that Trump did briefly and informally converse with Russian President Vladimir Putin (in Vietnam), despite the displeasure of the establishment, though this, it was stated, was mainly about Syria. Trump, in a verbal cleanup, said that he did believe his intelligence agencies’ allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Notably, there seems to have been little, or none, of the usual ‘human rights’ pinpricks aimed at Beijing (and, later, at Manila), even as Trump made plain his admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership and his potential role in resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff.
REALISM KICKING IN
It was most significant that – despite the earlier signals that Trump would, unveil a containment-of-China policy, in the form of advocating a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, what seems to have emerged, instead, was his paler exhortation for “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, where disputes exist between several countries regarding various island chains.
And although, before leaving Vietnam, Trump transferred the US Coast Guard Cutter ‘Morgenthau’ to assist Hanoi in what the US terms “freedom of navigation” patrols and even offered to mediate, as the Associated Press notes: “Trump’s offer faces major obstacles. For one, China has steadfastly opposed what it calls US meddling in the disputes and has balked at the US Navy’s incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.”
As far as Japan and South Korea, long-standing US allies most imminently threatened by Pyongyang, are concerned, Trump appeared to ramp down his former fiery rhetoric against North Korea, speaking instead of seeing progress in diplomatic efforts to counter the nuclear threat from that reclusive, opaque dictatorship, even as the US positioned three aircraft carrier groups and a nuclear submarine in the Pacific to signal Pyongyang that all options are on the table.
Trump, the quintessential businessman and deal-broker, however, did not hesitate from reminding the leadership and public in Japan and South Korea that they would enhance their security with significant chunks of American military hardware.
Indeed, as he phrased it in Seoul, South Korea will be ordering the equivalent of billions of dollars of American military hardware which “frankly, for them, makes sense, a lot of sense…And for us, it means jobs, it means reducing our trade deficit with South Korea.”
Before signing off on the Trump segment of this column, I believe it will be in the readership interest to point out the difference between the United States’ relationship with Japan and South Korea and China, as suggested by Jeffery A. Boder, a China adviser to former President Barrack Obama, in the NYT, thus: “Japan and South Korea need us in an existential way; the Chinese don’t need us in an existential way.”
As far as Nepal is concerned, the indications that Trump is in no mood to play ducks and drakes with Beijing means that should India attempt to orchestrate an anti-China policy in Nepal, assisted by lackeys, it will resoundingly back-fire.
In conclusion, I wish to pay tribute to former prime minister Kirtinidhi Bista who recently passed away. He was a patriot and gentleman with whom I had a long association, both while he was in power and when he was not. May his soul rest in peace.