Special to WorldTribune.com
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs
Year-end 2016 saw something never before publicly witnessed in the U.S. political scene: a most direct and open attempt by an outgoing U.S. Administration to damage and limit the prospects of a newly-elected incoming Administration in such a way that U.S. global strategic interests have been sacrificed to the personal ideology of the outgoing President.
This occurred despite statements to the media by outgoing President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, that they would do everything they could to ensure a smooth transition of power to the new Administration of Donald J. Trump.
But in reality, departing U.S. President Obama, surprised by the loss of his Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8, 2016, Presidential election (and with her loss Obama’s own loss of protective cover and continuity for his policies), has taken the final weeks of his Presidency to initiate actions which were designed to make it difficult for incoming President Donald Trump to implement some of his key platform promises.
Significantly, in the international arena, President Obama doubled down on his policy of appeasing major adversaries and detractors such as the People’s Republic of China and Turkey, and escalated the undermining of allies or potential allies.
The Obama decision on Dec. 29, 2016, to expel 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. (and to impose additional sanctions on Russia) because of alleged Russian attempts to interfere with the U.S. elections of Nov. 8, 2016, was one high-profile attempt to undermine a commitment by incoming President Trump to improve U.S.-Russian strategic relations. [Sanctions were to be imposed against nine entities and individuals, including the Russian GRU and FSB intelligence agencies; Russian intelligence compounds in New York and Maryland would be closed.]
The gestures against Russia were not reciprocated by the Russian Government of President Vladimir Putin, who clearly saw the Obama gesture as being aimed more at Mr Trump than against Russia, particularly given the reality that (a) no specific evidence of election tampering has yet been cited by the U.S. Government, and (b) the U.S. itself has engaged consistently in campaigns to alter the course of foreign elections.
The fact that Russia, Turkey, and Iran then went on to negotiate a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict without U.S. involvement further fueled the Obama White House’s determination to punish Moscow, particularly in light of the apparent keenness of Mr Trump to work with, rather than against, Russia on many key issues.
President Obama’s earlier move to downplay the congratulatory telephone call from Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump and, essentially, to essentially apologize to Beijing for the action by the President-elect was of key significance, and President Obama is expected to take further action against the ROC before he leaves office, more to damage incoming President Trump than for any other reason.
The decisive — and clearly well-planned — Trump-Tsai exchange took President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry completely by surprise, and sources in the Obama Administration admitted that the gesture built the President’s anger against Mr Trump even further.
See: “Building a New Strategic Architecture and Dynamic in Asia: The Re-Birth of Viable U.S.-ROC Relations” in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, Dec. 9, 2016.
Significantly, ROC President Tsai was scheduled to make a “technical” stopover in Houston, in the U.S. state of Texas, on Jan. 7, 2017, en route Jan. 8, 2017, to her Central American tour, meeting with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez [Jan. 9, 2016], Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra [Jan. 10, 2017], Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales [Jan. 11-12, 2017], and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén [Jan. 12-13, 2017]. President Tsai would then return via San Francisco to Taipei.
The PRC Government had asked the U.S. Government to disallow the stopover in Houston — at which President Tsai was scheduled to meet with expatriate Taiwanese business leaders — but the U.S. had thus far refrained from doing that. The White House, however, had ordered that the ROC visiting team, including President Tsai, not make any comments to the media during the Houston stopover, and has insisted that the ROC media traveling with President Tsai refrain from transmitting any reports while in the U.S..
However, there is some concern that the U.S. would do nothing to stop PRC-backed hostile demonstrations against President Tsai while she passed through the U.S. Moreover, there were indications, too, that the PRC was making strong moves to pressure the governments of the Central American states where President Tsai was due to hold meetings, possibly including pressure to end their diplomatic relations with the ROC in favor of the PRC.
Beijing on Dec. 21, 2016, had managed to get the West African state, São Tomé and Príncipé, to switch its diplomatic ties from the ROC to the PRC, after São Tomé kept escalating financial demands of the ROC. The ROC’s loss of diplomatic relations with São Tomé and Príncipé meant that the country now maintained formal diplomatic links with 21 states.
President Tsai had asked incoming U.S. President Trump to help ensure that the ROC’s diplomatic relations internationally be expanded, and there was little doubt from within the Trump Transition Team that there was support for strengthening U.S. strategic commitments with the ROC, particularly given that Taiwan held the key, geographically, to containing the PRC’s military capabilities to a considerable degree within the “first island chain”, even with the possible or partial removal of the Philippines from that geopolitical containment of China.
The Trump move to re-assert U.S. strategic capabilities into the Western Pacific, and possibly the Indo-Pacific as a whole, highlights the failure of the Obama Administration’s “Pacific pivot” strategy, and for that reason alone, according to White House sources, President Obama was not happy with the increased profile which the ROC was achieving in Washington, DC, following the Tsai-Trump telephone call of Dec. 2, 2016.
Beijing officials, too, recognized that they had a limited window of opportunity to make further strategic strides before the Obama Administration left office, and were expected to attempt to disrupt the Tsai U.S. and Central America tour. What was significant was that even ROC media reporting indicated that there were difficulties in some of the ROC’s relations with its Central American diplomatic partners.
As a result, President Tsai will lead a a delegation of more than 90 people, including National Security Council Secretary-General Joseph Wu, Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee, Overseas Community Affairs Council Minister Wu Hsin-hsing, deputy heads of government agencies, lawmakers, and businesspeople, with the hope of cementing economic and business commitments to improve bilateral trade as well as political-strategic relations with the four Central American countries.
There seemed little doubt that the wake-up call for Taipei of the diplomatic switch by São Tomé and Príncipé, coupled with the very real opportunities for improved U.S.-ROC relations under the Trump Administration, meant that the Tsai Government, in office only since early 2016, would now commit strongly to building economic relations with its diplomatic partners. But, then, at the same time, the PRC had indicated following the Dec. 2, 2017, Tsai-Trump call, that it needed also to go into full offensive mode.
The ROC is the U.S.’ ninth largest trading partner. The question now, however, is where its defense links with the U.S. will go. It is probable that the Trump Administration would support improved defense supply relations, and this would probably include improvement in support for Taiwanese indigenous capabilities in the defense industrial realm, to allow more significant support with a lower political profile.
But subtle improvements, too, in operational liaison between the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and the ROC National Defense Ministry could result in a substantial rebuilding of capabilities aimed at curbing the PRC’s ability to surge offensive capabilities into the Central Pacific, and significantly limit the potential effectiveness of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy two carrier battle group capability, expected to come on-stream within five to 10 years.
What is also significant, as the important but only partially-successful talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed in Tokyo on Dec. 16, 2016, was that Russia also shared the Trump Administration’s concerns about rising PRC strategic capabilities.