WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership just two days ago, but this morning, multiple experts and one four-star general agreed that America’s Pacific alliances — except perhaps the Philippines — would survive and even thrive. A few hours later, aptly enough, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary James Mattis, the new administration’s most outspoken proponent of strong alliances, will visit Seoul and Tokyo next week in his first foreign trip.
But it’s not just longstanding allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia that want the US to reach out. Across the Pacific, more nations than ever before are asking to hold joint exercises with the US military. Why? Because as unsettled as Asian leaders are by Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and his demands that allies spend more on their own defense, they’re even more unsettled by a rising, militarizing China and a consistently erratic North Korea. In brief: Threats trump Trump.
Yes, “we’re going to see some surface noise and chop” as the political leadership changes, said Andrew Shearer, a former Australian national security official now at the Center for International and Security Studies, which hosted this morning’s event. Some Asian leaders may clash with the new administration, like the Philippines’ erratic and fiery Rodrigo Duterte. But others may be quite simpatico with Trump, like Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, himself a brash businessman turned politician, or Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, who wants to boost his country’s defense spending and has already met with Trump in New York.
But in a way that transcends personalities, Shearer said, the alliances have been and will remain strong because “they’re driven by threats and, guess what, the threat’s not going away. The North Korean threat in particular is going to be a real driver.”
“North Korea is always the country you can rely on to pull your chestnuts out of the fire,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert at CSIS. “I think North Korea is going to be one of the first crises for this administration, and that will be a spur to greater cooperation.”
That’s true, Cha says, despite the ongoing political implosion in South Korea, which makes the 2016 election campaign here look stodgy. President Park Geun-hye is being impeached, some of the country’s most powerful businessmen are under investigation for corruption, and the opposition has not yet unified around a candidate. The upheaval has complicated plans to send American THAAD missile defenses to the peninsula, and China has seized upon the simultaneous transitions in Seoul and Washington to press Korea to cancel the deployment. This chaotic context makes Mattis’ visit all the more important.
Across Asia, China’s increasingly aggressive actions continue to push once-neutral countries towards the United States, especially in the South China Sea. (That’s a point former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made every chance he could). Currently, China’s in a wait-and-see mode, agreed CSIS scholars Bonnie Glaser and Zack Cooper, and it’s trying to avoid confrontation with the new administration.
“China is our enemy–they want to destroy us” — Redstate Interview
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2011
But China’s cautious stance could change overnight “if they perceive they are provoked,” warned Glaser, and provocation is very much in the eye of the beholder. China’s prickly nationalism means they might take umbrage at moves Americans might see as inoffensive, such as Japan — China’s historic enemy — joining US-led “freedom of navigation” patrols through disputed waters in the South China Sea. If Trump ordered a blockade of Chinese bases on artificial islands in those waters, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to suggest, it could create the potential for a direct military clash. (Perhaps calling it a quarantine — as in the Cuba Missile Crisis — might take the sting out.)
If Trump does indeed intend to take on China — which he has called an “enemy” for its trade practices and cyber espionage — then he needs all the allies he can get. “It’s clear that there are strains of thought inside the administration that want to limit that mind of cooperation,” Cooper told me. “I think at the end of the day the administration is going to find that it needs these allies to deal with China, so it can’t really walk away.”
While political uncertainty prevails at the highest level, military officials and officers at the working level are getting on with the day-to-day work of international cooperation. Between the Chinese threat and the North Korean one, more and more countries want to conduct military exercises with the US. They even want to conduct more multilateral exercises with each other. That’s a major shift in a region where mutually suspicious neighbors traditionally preferred bilateral exercises in which they worked one-on-one with the US. The commander of US Army Pacific, Gen. Robert Brown, told the CSIS conference that he is currently in negotiations to set up multilateral exercises with “six or seven nations” that would not have considered such a thing in the past.
“I have never seen stronger ties throughout the region,” said Brown, an old Pacific hand. Since he took the USARPAC job nine months ago, he’s visited 26 countries which wanted to host a US Army unit for a “Pacific Pathways” exercise. (The notable exception was China, he said, though the Chinese already do some strictly humanitarian exercises with the US).
Some countries have gone further and put up their own money to send their own troops to the United States for training. These “reverse Pathways” include a Singaporean detachment that went to California’s National Training Center for high-intensity wargames.
That a traditional neutral like Singapore is participating in the ferocious simulated combat for which the NTC is famous shows how Asian allies are increasingly willing to try out different kinds of training. 10 years ago, countries would gladly train with the US on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and rescue, “but if it was something else, dealing with North Korea for example, people would walk on eggshells,” Brown said. “Now they participate.”
You even get mutually wary countries to prepare together for sensitive operations. Consider Non-Combatant Operations, the art of getting foreign nationals out of a war zone in a hurry. “10 years ago, it was difficult to get the Republic of Korea, the ROKs, and Japan, to talk about things like NEO,” said Brown. “Now it’s normal.”