Strategic comeback in the Pacific: Trump’s game plan comes into focus

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Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The initial fruits of U.S. President Donald Trump’s 13-day, five-nation Asian tour in November 2017 were beginning to become apparent within a month.

Mr. Trump’s consistently hostile media reception continued with the tour, indicating that nothing substantive had resulted from the visit to Japan, the Republic of Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. But, as with all such visits, the real impact emerges gradually, and, ideally, with subtlety and nuance, so that there are no sudden perceptions of “winners” and “losers”. Even so, media perceptions, even in regional capitals in the Indo-Pacific zone, continued to have a serious impact on policy-level audiences in the region. Experienced commentators in, for example, Australia continued to wring their hands at the prospect that President Trump would see no alternative but to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the DPRK (North Korea).

President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in news broadcast at the Seoul Train Station in South Korea on Aug. 10. / Ahn Young-joon / AP

Yet, with all this, as forecast by Defense & Foreign Affairs since May 2017, the Trump White House has arrived at the point which was noted as the goal of its policy toward the DPRK: an offer of direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

On Dec. 12, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson specifically outlined a proposal to Pyongyang for immediate, direct talks, without preconditions.

This is the scenario which Beijing had feared most, and, as a result, PRC President Xi Jinping had courted President Trump carefully and lavishly to ensure that the U.S. did not “end-run” the PRC on the DPRK issue. At least President Xi understood that President Trump had done him the courtesy of not initiating that contact with the DPRK before the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) 19th Party Congress in November 2017.

“We are ready to have the first meeting [with the Government of the DPRK] without precondition,” Sec. Tillerson said on Dec. 12, 2017. “Let’s just meet, and we can talk about the weather if you want. Talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table, if that’s what you are excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face, and then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards.”

The position of both U.S. President Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un was to build appropriate “negotiating positions” before engaging in direct, bilateral talks. The goal of the PRC, on the other hand, was to strenuously oppose such talks — and an outcome in which the PRC would lose control over the DPRK — in an attempt to perpetuate the Korean Peninsula stalemate to provide both a strategic buffer for the PRC across its Yalu River boundary, and to stop the emergence of a “new Silk Route” from South Korea (ROK) through the DPRK to Vladivostok and over to Western Europe, diminishing the PRC’s near-monopoly on trans-Eurasian trade.

It was unsurprising, then, that the Russian government on Dec. 13, welcomed the Tillerson statement of the day before.

Indeed, the commentary on the Trump Asian visit in Australia — which portrays itself as the U.S.’ best and most consistent ally — against President Trump continues to be colored by vehement anti-Trump sophists who continue to bemoan the electoral loss in the Presidential elections by Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton.

All of the “policy” think-tanks in Australia — from Sydney University’s U.S. Studies Centre, to the well-funded Lowy Institute and the Perth USAsia Foundation — and key Australian Labor Party grandees, such as former Defence Minister Kim Beazley and Prof. Hugh White, have continued to make extreme (even, often, hysterical) comments about the dangers of the Trump Administration, and this has led to a significant weakening of U.S.-Australia political ties, even though the ANZUS Treaty and the UKUSA Accords (the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence exchange agreement engaging the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) remain the cornerstone of Australian national security.

But what the Trump Asia tour and the earlier months of deliberately high-profile military focus on the DPRK threat to the U.S. achieved was precisely what President Trump envisaged, even when it was not understood by the mainstream U.S. bureaucracy. It actually put the Indo-Pacific back into the focus of U.S. defense activity after more than a decade of U.S. decline in the region.

The U.S. has now begun to materially rebuild its military presence in the Indo-Pacific in a fashion which did not cause an immediate, whiplash reaction from Beijing, because the PRC believed that the U.S. force build-up in the Pacific was designed merely for bellicose showmanship against Pyongyang.

There is still an element of denial in intelligence and media circles that this process was a conscious strategy by President Trump, and that even, in its earliest iterations, was not understood fully by the “military triumvirate” around him: White House Chief of Staff Gen. (rtd.) John F. Kelly; National Security Advisor Lt.-Gen. Herbert R. McMaster; and Defense Secretary Gen. (rtd.) James Mattis.

And yet the consistency of this Trump strategy, and the President’s appreciation of how to negotiate (initially at arm’s-length) with DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un and to redress the years of strategic decline vis-à-vis the PRC through the previous U.S. Barack Obama Administration has been clear since before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20. His initial telephone call, as President-elect, with Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2, 2016, was meant as the opening barrage of his new Asia policy, which had been well considered before he assumed office.

It is fair to say that even President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who — with what he perceived to be his close personal contacts in the PRC — was to enter the White House on Jan. 20, as a Senior Advisor to the president, was not privy to the president’s strategy with regard to the PRC.

If anything has emerged from the year since President Trump was elected on Nov. 8, 2016, it is that he has steadfastly kept his own counsel, even when media and political hysteria has insisted that he was behaving irrationally with regard to the DPRK and on other issues.

This should come as a sobering realization to those who believe that President Trump responds unthinkingly — through Twitter and open remarks — to issues, and that he is solely reactive and therefore tactical in his approach. The Twitter, the comments, and, indeed, the bellicosity toward the DPRK have masked what may be a coup de main in the Indo-Pacific.

So, is the U.S. now embarked on a new era of robustness with a new strategic framework in the Indo-Pacific? Possibly, but Beijing is moving rapidly to consolidate the decade of unopposed strategic expansion.

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