- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2018

SINGAPORE — President Trump pulled off the seemingly impossible by drawing reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un into a summit here last month. Before that, he made the longest trip to Asia in a generation by an American leader. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis also has visited no less than seven times since early last year.

With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scrambling to keep a North Korea deal alive with a third visit to Pyongyang over the weekend, U.S. foreign policy appears as focused as ever on the Pacific. Still, a nagging anxiety is coursing through the region that Washington lacks a coherent long-term strategy for countering what many in Asia fear is an era of increasing Chinese economic dominance and military expansionism.

“People are concerned that as China rises, the U.S. won’t continue to want to be present both militarily and economically,” said Satu Limaye, a top analyst with the Hawaii-based East-West Center, which held a recent conference in Singapore that delved into America’s future in the region.

U.S. activity has been expanding, from President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” right through Mr. Trump’s increased concentration on China and North Korea over the past 18 months. “But we’ve given mixed signals and people don’t know how to read mixed signals,” said Mr. Limaye, who heads the center’s Washington office.

Mr. Trump may be standing up to Beijing economically with bare-knuckle trade talks, capped by the triggering of some $34 billion in tariffs on Chinese exports last week.

But his “America First” approach, coupled with threats to restructure deals with others if they don’t obviously benefit the U.S. economy, has caused unease among smaller nations in Asia, where some wonder whether a grand American withdrawal might be on the horizon if the president doesn’t get his way on trade.

“The doubts persists because of our mixed messaging,” said Mr. Limaye.

He suggested that the region is still struggling to digest Mr. Trump’s decision more than a year ago to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade deal that the Obama administration spent years trying establish with the goal of banding the region’s capitalist democracies together against China under an umbrella of U.S.-backed economic rules.

Mr. Trump has left several key U.S. ambassadorships unfilled, including in Singapore and Australia, and sent nerves on edge among many in Asia by suggesting that his long-term goal is to remove U.S. military forces from the region. The most notable example came during an unscripted press conference after the Kim summit, when the president spoke suddenly of wanting eventually to “bring home” the some 32,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Analysts say such rhetoric played directly into China’s hand at a moment when Beijing is projecting its military power across the region. It also loomed over Mr. Mattis’ visit last week to the Chinese capital, where the defense secretary embraced a notably conciliatory tone during a meeting with President Xi Jinping.

While Mr. Mattis is known for touting the “steady drumbeat” of U.S. Navy “freedom of navigation” exercises aimed at deterring Chinese military activity around disputed islands in the South China Sea, he tempered his remarks in Beijing to focus more broadly on the goal of keeping U.S.-China military-to-military relations “on the right trajectory.”

Mr. Xi, according to Chinese state media, did not reciprocate. Instead, he told the Pentagon chief that China would not yield “even one inch” of disputed territory it has claimed as its own in recent years.

Messaging and frustration

Beijing’s construction of as many as seven military bases on reclaimed island patches in the South China Sea was a source of frustration among U.S. officials attending the East-West Center conference in Singapore in late June.

“President Xi Jinping said in 2015 there would not be a militarization of these features,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Walter Douglas said during one panel discussion. “The other day on Chinese television, they showed a bomber landing on one of [them].”

Mr. Douglas argued that the Trump administration does have a long-term strategy of pursuing new and fairer trade deals with regional partners, while using joint military patrols to bolster allies and deter China from thinking it might one day control international naval or commercial traffic through the South China Sea.

The deputy assistant secretary, who oversees public diplomacy for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Mr. Trump laid out the vision during his 11-day visit to the region last year — a five-nation tour that was the longest to Asia by any president since George H.W. Bush in 1991.

In Vietnam, Mr. Trump spoke of America’s century of using military might to “guarantee freedom of navigation,” a security umbrella that allowed East Asian economies, including China, to prosper. At the same time, the president lamented that the U.S. has “for too long and in too many places … opened our economy with few conditions” while others “didn’t open their markets to us.”

Mr. Trump spoke of a “renewed partnership” with Asia but stressed that the U.S. will now “seek robust trade relationships rooted in the principles of fairness and reciprocity.”

Although the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Douglas said, the White House understands the importance of unifying nations across Asia “in their desire for a rules-based system that all countries in the region play by.”

Mr. Douglas said the administration plans to fine-tune the message in the coming months. “You’re going to hear more about it,” he said. “You’re going to have President Trump saying more about it.”

It remains to be seen whether a president with an expressed desire to seek trade concessions from smaller Asian partners will be able to inspire those same partners to align militarily against Beijing — or at least embrace a more standardized multinational framework aimed at containing Beijing’s growing footprint in the South China Sea.

“You need to send a clear message,” said Mr. Limaye, “that our new approach to trade is not de-linking our security commitment.”

With that as a backdrop, the high-stakes pursuit of a denuclearization deal with North Korea could badly damage Washington’s overall credibility in Asia, particularly if Mr. Trump is seen to have been led into a messy trap by Pyongyang.

Mr. Pompeo dismissed critics of the pursuit Sunday. He insisted during a stop in Tokyo that his latest visit to North Korea had moved the ball forward toward a dismantlement of the rogue nation’s nuclear programs — even as Pyongyang issued a statement accusing Washington of pursuing a “unilateral and gangsterlike demand for denuclearization.”

Reading the ‘Quad’

One pillar in the drive toward wider U.S.-led coordination around China, meanwhile, has become known as “the Quad” — an unofficial alliance featuring joint military exercises among U.S., India, Japan and Australia aimed establishing a big-power foundation to undergird Washington’s security relationships with smaller nations on China’s periphery.

In addition to U.S. land, sea and air assets, and roughly 80,000 troops in South Korea and Japan, a key tenet of U.S. hard-power projection in Asia can be found in Singapore, where the Navy’s Task Force 73 runs support logistics for some 20 bilateral and multilateral security cooperation exercises with 14 nations in South and Southeast Asia.

The big question for many in the region is whether the Trump administration can succeed over the coming years with a strategic initiative that long eluded the Obama White House: creating lasting trust and interoperability between the Quad and the plethora of relationships Washington has with nations such as Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia and the Philippines.

“Many in Southeast Asia are quite wary of the Quad because it leaves this thinking of, ‘What about us in the middle?’” said Zakir Hussain, the foreign news editor at The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading English-language newspaper.

The tension has left the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — the 10-member alliance that seeks to maintain good relations with both China and the U.S. — increasingly eager to establish and lead its own multilateral security operations designed to foster cooperation rather than competition between Washington and Beijing.

“The ASEAN defense ministers have sort of expanded and brought China and the U.S. into military exercises in recent years,” Mr. Hussain said at the East-West Center conference. “Although the focus now is on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and military medicine, I think there’s some serious intent to actually expand … so you have another platform where China and the U.S. and other militaries do work together.”

How the Quad and the ASEAN-led approaches ultimately play out “depends on what the Chinese do,” said C. Raja Mohan, a top Indian geopolitical analyst who heads the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

If the Chinese take a hard line, “those around China’s periphery will be compelled to draw closer to the Americans,” said Mr. Mohan. “But … if the Chinese are nice to their neighbors, maybe then there is no need for the Quad in the first place.”

At the same time, he said, the smaller nations of Asia are taking careful stock of everything Mr. Trump says as they see his administration re-evaluating every U.S. relationship in the region. “If you look at him, he’s saying, ‘Look, what are you doing for me?’”

“This guy is forcing them to step up to the plate and do something,” Mr. Mohan said. “They have to. You can’t expect the Americans to carry the load forever.”

Despite the concerns, the State Department’s Mr. Douglas insisted that the U.S. presence in Asia won’t diminish anytime soon.

“There are a lot of faces of America out in the region. It’s not just a bunch of aircraft carriers moving around,” he said. “There’s a large American presence out here, [and] it’s not going away.”

“We’re a Pacific power, a Pacific country, we have an awful lot of Americans who can trace their heritage to this region,” he said. “We continue to be involved across a broad spectrum of our society and our government in maintaining that involvement.”

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