Trump Goes to Asia—but the Pentagon Gets There First
Mattis confirms policy with Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul before the president’s first trip across the Pacific.
At the end of this week our president is to set off on an 11–day sweep through Asia—five nations plus two regional forums, one each in Hanoi and Manila. Wow. This is a lot of miles, a lot of summitry, a lot of speechifying, and a lot of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino dinners. Let us prepare to watch. There will be something important to learn from this gaudy itinerary—not about Asia or Asians, but about ourselves, our leadership, and the cliques that devise and execute our trans–Pacific policies.
Am I the only one reminded of the famous “imperial cruise” TR commissioned in 1905? That summer our self-dramatizing empire builder, America’s first, loaded the SS Manchuria with 80–odd notables, including his daughter Alice, and sent them on a journey through Asia to tell the world that the Pacific was going to be an American lake. Grand is as grand does, I gather we are supposed to think as Trump proceeds through the western Pacific more or less in the Manchuria’s wake.
I am for calling this escapade a late-imperial cruise. It is yesterday meets tomorrow, and how much can yesterday have to say to a day it cannot see?
Trump’s planners have one thing right as they send their boss on the longest turn through Asia an American president has ever made. Relations across the Pacific are and will remain Washington’s single greatest foreign-policy challenge for a lot of this century. By relations across the Pacific, I mean relations with China. They now inform every one of Washington’s other trans–Pacific ties. And relations with China are changing. This is Washington’s big problem. China is changing more or less everything in the Pacific, and Washington does not want it to.
At the moment Asia seems to dance like a dervish. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s premier and a blueblood nationalist, just won a decisive victory in snap elections and now promises to proceed with plans to free Japan from the strictures written into the “peace constitution,” 70 years old this year. After Tokyo comes Seoul, where the just-elected Moon Jae-in has been parrying the United States on the North Korea question, at least by my reckoning, while talking to the Russians and Chinese about what Washington refuses to talk about—serious, comprehensive, multi-sided solutions to the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Trump moves onto Beijing a couple of weeks after Xi Jinping’s strikingly confident speech at the Communist Party Congress earlier this month. One is certain the Trump White House heard the Chinese leader’s remarks, but nearly as certain the president and his people did not listen to them. In all likelihood, Xi will merely have to repeat what he has said countless times already to no evident result. No, we cannot solve the Korea crisis for you. We will do what we can, but that is only so much, and we are dead against another of your American “regime changes.” No, we have no intention of altering course in the South China Sea. Yes, we are an emerging power, and by the middle of this century we will be a great power.
On to the annual Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, this year in Danang, and then possibly to Hanoi for talks with Trần Đại Quang, Vietnam’s president. Here the topic will turn from geopolitics toward trade. What can Trump possibly say to the Vietnamese and other small-nation signatories of the Trans–Pacific Partnership, having left them awkwardly dangling when he abandoned the accord? Trump’s final stop is Manila. There he will attend festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a Cold War antique that now takes its place among APEC and various other bureaucracies devoted to common economic interests. Then it is talks with Rodrigo Duterte, the plainspoken Filipino president, who has been waging war against a rampant drug trade as well as Islamic insurgents on Mindanao, a traditionally Muslim (and traditionally rebellious) island of jungle and rural poverty.
Trump admires Duterte’s style: He is bold and thinks everything is pretty simple. But Duterte, a Southeast Asian caudillo, also harbors an abiding bitterness over America’s “little brother” treatment of the Philippines since formal independence in 1946. Duterte, indeed, views the drug crisis as a consequence of this essentially neocolonial relationship. He, too, is talking regularly with the Russians and Chinese.
It is well worth following Trump’s grand tour, but this is not to say he will accomplish much. How can he? He knows little of Asia, but this does not distinguish him among US leaders. There is a more profound problem with this adventure, and it is not to be confused with Trump’s shortcomings. This is the problem of nostalgia and complacence in combination. More than anywhere else, I would say, Washington simply does not want to entertain the thought that it is no longer, say, 1954. The Japanese had enlisted as our ever-obliging spear-carriers by then, there was a settlement in Korea, and China, while “lost,” was also contained. The lake was indeed American. What has ensued are many decades of Washington searching for ever new ways to keep it such, most recently Obama’s much publicized pivot to Asia and the Bush-Obama Trans-pacific Partnership.
If I judged last spring’s events correctly, Trump now has no more than symbolic authority in the foreign-policy sphere—not least on the big trans–Pacific issues. This is a symptom of the deeper problem just noted. Let us not miss: The president’s very first stop will be in Honolulu, where the Pacific Command is to brief him. This is sensible, given the Pentagon has run policy in the Pacific since the Cold War’s onset. The Trump administration could scarcely make this clearer. Defense Secretary Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, have dropped even the traditional pretense of deference to State Department diplomacy: They evince no interest in policy. Their concerns are strategic interests and the military structure across the region to defend them. Consider: Mattis arrived in the Philippines last week, 11 days before Trump is to begin his jaunt—and continued on to South Korea. What work Washington had to get done in Manila and Seoul got done when Mattis visited the two capitals.
Can you think of a clearer display of American foreign policy in all its deficiency, a plainer picture of American flatfootedness as the 21st century proceeds? A know-nothing president will fuss with chopsticks for nearly two weeks while a retired general, an operations man with no training in diplomacy, no feel for Asia’s many complexities, and no interest in America’s economic interests, serves as Washington’s point man. This is where the lesson in Trump’s trip lies. We are a powerful nation, but we are not strong—a distinction I consider essential to make. For all the might our foreign-policy framework expresses, it is at bottom feeble.
Let us consider briefly what this is likely to look like as Trump hopscotches through Asia in early November.
Trump will be pleased with Shinzo Abe’s resolve, now that he has a commanding majority in the Diet, to remove constitutional limitations on Japan’s military activity. The short-term logic is obvious: Japan has served Washington faithfully since 1945, and now Trump and his people want Asian credibility as they make “the military option” all too real an option on the Korean Peninsula. I am all for a bruising constitutional brawl among the Japanese, to be clear on this point. It is a minority view, but it is time the Japanese stopped being afraid of themselves. Even if they write a version of the “no-war” Article 9 into a new constitution, it will do them immense good finally to replace the document the United States drafted and imposed on them in 1947. But it will be a mistake if Trump, as I anticipate, jumps into this.
Abe will get more out of Trump than the other way around, for one thing. More important, is there no sensitivity in Washington as to how the Chinese will take it when Trump applauds the political plans of a committed nationalist whose grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a senior official in occupied Manchuria (and later imprisoned but released before being charged as a war criminal)? None, we are likely to find—as there was none when the Pentagon installed its latest missile-defense system in South Korea earlier this year above Beijing’s vigorous objections.
This is what you get when the military runs policy. China and Japan are the France and Germany of East Asia. A settlement between them is the key to the region’s dynamic (as against static) stability. I see no evidence whatsoever that anyone in Washington understands this thought. Have you noticed? Reassuring traditional allies as to our military position does not go so far as it once did. Washington continues to posture over China’s plans to maintain security in the South China Sea. The question is complex, but many in the region have made plain by now their preference for give-and-take settlements of conflicting claims over ostentatious displays of American naval power that suggest military force can preserve the status quo.
A mistake in Tokyo turns to incomprehension in Seoul. President Moon allowed the new missile defense to go ahead after opposing it during his hugely popular campaign earlier this year. And he has taken to talking tough on North Korea since its most recent missile and nuclear tests. These are in part sops to keep Washington from sabotaging him, in my read. Over his other shoulder, Moon is intimately engaged with China and Russia as they pursue independent tracks toward a resolution to the peninsula’s crisis. With China, he supports reviving six-party talks, the now-abandoned format bringing China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States into negotiations with the North. With Russia, Moon is blueprinting an extraordinarily insightful plan to bring the North into range of resource, transportation, and industrial projects that would develop North Korea and the Russian Far East while removing the North as an impediment in South Korea’s connections to the Asian landmass. This is where Moon’s energy is going these days. It is potentially big stuff, even if our press refuses to report it.
Let me put this simply. How much do you think Donald Trump knows about these efforts? How well prepared do you think he is to engage Moon on them? My own answers are “next to nothing” and “not at all.” But again, do not mark Trump down as the primary problem here. Nobody in Washington has had anything to say on such solutions. This is why Moon stands to flummox Trump during their encounter In Seoul.
It will be the same in Beijing in a still-larger context. By all appearances the United States persists in its blood-from-a-stone effort to get the Chinese to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. No amount of talk, coercion, or wishful thinking will make this work, and that is that. As of Xi’s speech at the party congress, however, there are bigger things a US president ought to be thinking about. Xi announced China’s imminent arrival not only as an economic and political power; he also offered China as an alternative model for other countries to consider emulating—a kind of ideological arrival.
I do not think Xi intends this as a strategy of confrontation, however destructively some in the United States insists on seeing it as such. But the Chinese presence is expanding into its available space, gaining flesh, as Xi as much as said in his speech. The ante is upped. This is why I view the Sino–US relationship as the crucible in the question of American primacy in global affairs. And I simply cannot imagine Trump having anything useful to say about this. I hope Xi has the good sense to serve chocolate cake when the two leaders dine—a low expectation, I confess.
Trump will face two realities when he arrives in Southeast Asia—both, so far as I can make out, for the first time. While free-trade ideologues cast the administration’s thinking on trade and how it is now conducted as primitive, the current talks to remake the North American Free Trade Agreement suggest the ambition is more reasoned: to restructure global supply chains and so increase investment in the United States and restore at least some production lost to outsourcing. How well will he get this across to Vietnam and the TPP’s other refugees in APEC on his first try? Not very, is my forecast. I do not see him coming home with a trophy of any sort on the trade side.
Second, even when relations with China are uneasy—as they are between Beijing and Hanoi, for example—the region’s understanding of the mainland’s place in its future is perfectly plain. Reflecting this, so is its tilt into the Chinese orbit. What will Trump have to say about this? In the Philippines case, we can add Russia to the mix. There was a Reuters report last week noting that the day Mattis met Duterte, five Russian warships were getting ready to offload cargoes of infantry weapons and materiel. Duterte held a public ceremony to mark the occasion. There are also China’s Belt and Road plans and the impact of the steadily waxing Sino–Russian alliance to think about. Asians are, we can be dead certain, even if the United States purports to ignore these phenomena or will them into inconsequence, as now seems to be the strategy.
Asia often holds a mirror to the West, some good writers have observed. This has been so for a long time, and so it will be when Trump crosses the Pacific next week. If his Asia voyage does not promise to be a major event—setting aside unforeseen errors, always a possibility when Trump is on the road—there is a useful revelation in it. Asia is well into the 21st century. Across the region, the year is 2017. It is not waiting for the future to arrive: It is reaching in front of itself to meet it and make it. Trump will show us this, but as if in a negative field. Unless he plans surprises, we will see how inadequate our leadership and its policies are—how lost in the past. This stands to do us all good. Then we can reflect on the heavy price we pay for our insufficiencies and complacence.