This week the USS America docked at the Sepanggar Naval Base in Sabah. With a crew complement of 2,500, the USS America is designed for amphibious assault, a floating metal alligator that can spit out armed men rapidly onto a sandy beach. But it is also much more; able to support 28 aircraft including the Osprey and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it is a veritable floating air force.
Given that China lays claims to most of the South China Sea, and Malaysia’s claim to a part of the Spratly Islands is based on the islands sharing a continental shelf with Sabah, the warship’s presence no doubt offered a measure of reassurance to Malaysia and its military. After all, it is as big as the aircraft carriers of some nations. Just days before, the USS John S. McCain, a guided missile destroyer named after a former head of Pacific Command and one of the greatest advocates of American sea power, had made a freedom of navigation pass off Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, an area China occupied in 1995.
The movements are not unrelated and underscore a Pentagon valiantly waving the stars and stripes as it waits for clearer directions from Washington. There, a president who has little mental bandwidth, perhaps even interest, to digest his Asia briefing books in any detail, is floundering. Worryingly, he is showing signs of personal confusion, accepting counsel to tamp down on a situation one day, then reversing course the next.
A recent Associated Press report suggested that in the early days of the administration, Defence Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who was previously in charge of homeland security, had decided between themselves that at least one of them had to be in-country at any one time. Such was the trust level they had in the sagacity of their commander-in-chief.
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Six months into the Trump presidency, it would appear that whatever Asia policy that exists in Washington beyond North Korea and a trade fight with China is a band-aid reachout to the region by a clutch of people desperately trying to keep the United States in the game.
The principal actors in this piece are retired general Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil boss. They are backed by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, with Mr Kelly, who was recently appointed White House Chief of Staff, making it a quartet. Some sections of the Washington Establishment have a name for them – Axis of Adults.
Between them they also have the responsibility of assuring an increasingly fretful Asia that the US is still in the Asian game. Earlier this year, it was this bunch that probably persuaded Vice-President Mike Pence to make a trip to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Mr Pence did his part, even travelling in April to the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta to announce that President Donald Trump will appear for three Asia-related summits later in the year. The same month, Mr Mattis got Mr Trump to approve a full schedule of Freedom of Navigation Operations (Fonops) for the rest of the year, so the Pentagon will not need to go to the White House before every manoeuvre.
The US strategy, for now, seems to be to somehow hold down important alliances while not expanding security partnerships, thereby not spreading itself too thin.
While these are welcome moves, they are not proving quite enough. Vietnam’s recent decision to call off joint exploration in its exclusive economic zone with the Spanish company Repsol underscores how even nations with a history of toughness are bending the knee under intense Chinese pressure, while waiting for the wider strategic pieces to come together.
Not that Vietnam has keeled over entirely; another project in disputed waters with an Indian prospector seems to be proceeding and the way its diplomats worked in Manila recently to try to get the Asean communique to express concern about island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea dispute suggests the retreat is a tactical one.
Still, some observers believe that a well-timed statement from the State Department on sticking to the rule of law or something equivalent may have helped bolster the Vietnamese as they confronted Beijing. Likewise, the US has maintained a studied silence on “major defence partner” India’s current spat with China on a disputed trijunction with Bhutan at a time when New Delhi would have welcomed a meaningful gesture, such as a phone call from Mr Mattis to the Indian defence minister. Others have taken note that the USS John McCain’s Fonops off Mischief Reef were far less assertive than an earlier one in May when the USS Dewey did a 90-minute zigzag within the 12- nautical-mile zone.
That said, Mr Mattis did step in with a show measure of reassurance this week, telling visiting Vietnamese defence minister Ngo Xuan Lich that an American aircraft carrier will make a port visit to Vietnam next year, the first such military contact in 40 years, and part of expanding military ties. Interestingly, General Ngo is said to be one of two key people at the top of the Vietnamese hierarchy – the other apparently was the powerful Communist Party general secretary – to argue successfully for a climbdown on the Repsol case, although the mood among his Cabinet colleagues was to dig in and stay firm.
Mr Tillerson has been trying to do his bit too, even if it has been in his own patchy way.
Needing to be in Manila this month for the meeting with Asean foreign ministers, the State Department hastily pencilled in a whistle-stop tour of two other key Asean states – Thailand and Malaysia – for him. At each stop he promised to be back for a longer visit and suggested that Mr Trump intended to keep his word by coming out to Asia for the East Asia Summit in Manila and the Apec summit in Hanoi.
The US strategy, for now, seems to be to somehow hold down important alliances while not expanding security partnerships, thereby not spreading itself too thin. Thailand, a treaty ally for more than 60 years, hosts the US’ largest mission outside a war zone, with more than 50 US agencies, including USAID, present and half the staff involved in regional work.
But Mr Tillerson himself is part of the problem. A State Department that has no fewer than 38 of some of its most senior positions unfilled, including the top post for East Asia, while its chief steward conducts a deep review of its working is not the most efficient way for American diplomacy to prosper. What is more, there are reports that Mr Tillerson is an irritating micromanager, prone to get lost in the thicket of minor details and, therefore, at risk of losing the big picture.
BEAR WITH US
People close to the Republican Establishment in Washington concede that they need to do more in South-east Asia.
“Between North Korea, Afghanis- tan and the Middle East, much of the bandwidth for Asia gets exhausted,” one well-connected figure told me recently. “Believe me, though, Trump will come round to giving more attention to your region. It is a matter of time.”
Indeed, some Pentagon figures are baffled that Asia should worry so much. General Joe Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and currently in China, recently pointed out to an interviewer that the US is devoting 60 per cent of joint forces – including its newest and most capable weapons – to Pacific Command and also has undertaken a significant increase in the volume of multilateral military exercises in Asia.
“When you look at the facts, we have a pretty compelling story to tell,” he said. “(We are) matching our actions to the message that the US remains committed to the Asia-Pacific.”
Much of that is old hat, of course, and a narrative from the Obama days. Concerned Asians have every reason to point out that since Mr Trump took the presidency, there has been no major statement on Asia from the White House or a big speech from him directed to the region. While Mr Trump and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did have a meeting in Hamburg last month, on the sidelines of the Group of 20, the Vietnamese seem to have been the only South-east Asians thus far to get past the door of the executive mansion in Pennsylvania Avenue.
Until then, one supposes that the region needs to look for broad directions from the speech Mr Mattis delivered at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).
There, one questioner, describing Mr Mattis as “the hope of the side”, put to him that was it not true that all pointers led to a sentiment of being “present at the destruction” of the America-led post-war order. Mr Mattis’ response was to borrow words generally attributed to Churchill: “Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing. So we will still be there. And we will be there with you.”
It was meant to offer reassurance, no doubt. Yet it was also not lost on the audience of military figures and defence experts that it contained a measure of admission that his president did not necessarily see things that way – at least for the moment. It is an IISS-developed axiom that good strategy is conducted with a cool mind and a warm heart. Increasingly, and particularly after his reaction to the events in Charlottesville, Asians cannot be faulted for thinking that Mr Trump tends to go the other way. And it makes them wonder what that means for them.