Mattis Fails to Ease Asia's Concerns About Trump

  • President’s disinterest in alliances looms over security event
  • North Korea, collisions at sea and rise of China at issue

North Korea Isn't Backing Down

The first question asked of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a Singapore security conference this weekend began just by thanking him for taking the job. It was a compliment meant for Mattis, but not his boss.

Mattis waits after meeting with ASEAN defense leaders June 4.

Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, perceived disinterest in alliances and above all unpredictability were overwhelming topics of concern at the annual Shangri-La meeting of defense ministers and other security officials and analysts from a total of 48 countries, which ended on Sunday.

On stage, the focus was on the need to protect the “rules-based international order’’ from China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and the rising threat from international terrorism. References to Trump tended to be diplomatic. 

“In this brave new world, we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a speech to open the three-day event. The comment, though coming in an upbeat speech, echoed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning last week that Europe must go it alone.

Trump’s decisions to pull out the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact demonstrate an approach that is unraveling the U.S.’s “great creative act” after World War II -- a system of international rules and alliances that would be difficult if not impossible to restore -- said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organized the conference.

‘Trump Means Risk’

Off-stage, there was concern too over what Trump’s “America First’’ policies might mean for stability in a region grappling with the rapid rise of China.

“To us, Trump means risk,’’ said Wen-cheng Lin, director of the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, as he listened to a panel of defense ministers talk about regional threats. Taiwan -- claimed by China as part of its territory -- is heavily dependent on U.S. defense guarantees.

“We no longer know if we can trust the U.S.,’’ he said, citing the TPP decision, as much as he appreciated Mattis’ strong message of reassurance to allies in Europe. 

Only four months into his presidency, Trump has put his personal stamp on two big Asian issues -- abandoning the TPP and warning that a “major conflict” was possible to prevent North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S. The TPP decision was repeatedly cited as evidence that Trump has no interest in building up the alliances required to keep the U.S. in the role of rule-setter for the region.

Thucydides Trap

The ultimate risk is of a future conflict between the U.S. and China -- the “Thucydides trap” that Turnbull raised in his speech, in a reference to the tendency of ruling and rising powers to end up at war.

When Graham Allison -- the Harvard professor who coined the term -- finished writing his book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Trump had yet to be elected president, Allison said in a phone interview from Washington. The book was published Wednesday.

As a result, the U.S. had yet to raise the stakes with North Korea, or warned the leadership in Beijing that the only way to avoid a U.S. military build-up in the region was for China to solve the peninsula’s nuclear problem. North Korea is one of several potential triggers for an eventual, unintended China-U.S. conflict that Allison lays out in his book.

“I thought of rewriting some of it,’’ said Allison, who worries that the new U.S. embodies the anxiety over perceived decline and determination to restore greatness that historically has led established powers into war with their challengers. “Central casting couldn’t have dreamed up a better character than Donald Trump to lead America into Thucydides’s trap.’’

Conflict Risk

Like most at the conference, Xu Qiyu, deputy director of the strategic research unit at the Chinese military’s National Defense University in Beijing, was optimistic that China and the U.S. would join the handful of historical cases in which the rise of a new global power has not led to war with the established one. 

Trump has heaped praise his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping since the pair discussed efforts to resolve the North Korea issue at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April.

Still, Xu said: “China wants to defend its own interests while the U.S. wants to defend its credibility or prestige among its allies in Asia, so neither of the two nations can make heavy concessions. As the gap between the two powers narrows, China and the U.S. could see more conflicts.”

Indeed, the potential danger for the U.S. and China doesn’t lie in wanting to fight, but in the actions of third parties that neither can control, such as North Korea, or accidents. The weekend conference devoted panels not only to the Korean peninsula, but also to what Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called potential “black swan” collisions in the hotly contested South China Sea.

Heisbourg, of IISS, contrasted the mood in Singapore with February’s European security get-together in Munich. That event came just weeks after Trump’s inauguration -- and the appointments of Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“We were sort of hoping that the adults would prevail in Washington,” he said. “What we’ve discovered by now is that Trump thinks he is the commander-in-chief -- and he is the commander-in-chief.” And that, Heisbourg said, “has people here very worried.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai

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