US President Donald Trump has promised to "drain the swamp" of Washington's politics-as-usual but his inability to fill top Asia specialist positions has led to choppy policy signals toward the region. Photo: Getty Images
US President Donald Trump has promised to "drain the swamp" of Washington's politics-as-usual but his inability to fill top Asia specialist positions has led to choppy policy signals toward the region. Photo: Getty Images

When US President Donald Trump meets with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida, he will do so without the benefit of a team of Asian specialists to guide his diplomacy and draft his talking points. Asia policy to date has been steered chiefly by the White House, with Trump’s son-in-law and foreign policy neophyte Jared Kushner playing an outsized role.    

Trump’s inability to assemble a team of senior expert officials to direct the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council (NSC) policies toward Asia is one of several vacuums, though arguably none as crucial, to emerge in his two-and-a-half-month old administration. Critics say the vacuum has resulted in wild lurches in policy and pronouncements, and sewn confusion with allies and adversaries alike. 

Trump’s most senior cabinet members, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have both struggled to secure the appointment of their preferred deputies. The abrupt resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on allegations of illegal contacts with Russia put the key agency in disarray.

His replacement, former top general H.R. McMaster, has added to the confusion with the removal of top aide Stephen Bannon from the NSC’s core policy-making committee. Bannon, a former right-wing journalist, was widely viewed as the top anti-China hawk in Trump’s inner circle and the presumed ghost writer of Trump’s sometimes threatening tone toward Beijing.  

Former journalist and naval intelligence officer Stephen Bannon was unceremoniously removed from the National Security Council. Photo: Reuters

Several potential appointees are known to have been rejected by Trump due to their earlier participation in the “Never Trump” campaign, which garnered the signatures of 150 leading Republican Party national security experts who took issue with Trump’s various controversial pronouncements on the campaign trail, including not least his professed support for the use of torture on terror suspects.

That’s arguably drained the Asia-oriented talent pool. Patrick Cronin, a leading Asia expert who was slated to become director of the Pentagon-funded Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, is apparently the latest victim of a political vendetta and the prioritization of loyalty over competence under Trump.

Others with distinguished Asia experience believed to be frozen out include former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, ex-trade ambassador Robert Zoellick and ex-director of national intelligence John Negroponte, who also served as a former ambassador to the Philippines, a traditional US ally that has recently shifted towards China. Recent reports suggest Trump has sent conciliatory feelers to certain Bush era policy experts. 

Certain names have surfaced as likely appointees. Matthew Pottinger, a Chinese-speaking former Hong Kong-based Wall Street Journal reporter and Flynn acolyte as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, will likely lead the NSC’s East Asia portfolio despite Flynn’s demise. Key questions about the size of Trump’s inner circle and the precedence given to trade versus security will determine how big an impact the NSC broadly and Pottinger in particular will have on Asia policy.

Former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had signaled a more hardline stance from Washington. Photo: AFP

Washington insiders say lesser known personalities, including Michael DeSombre, a mergers and acquisitions attorney at the New York-based law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, and Jonathan Galaviz, a business consultant and frequent commentator on the gaming and casino industries in Asia, are both reportedly poised for top Asia-oriented State Department posts.

None of the major Department of Defense (DoD) nominations, including deputy secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, and General Counsel John Sullivan, a George W. Bush administration official, are known for their Asia focus. Former army officer Joe Felter, a counterinsurgency expert with top level experience in Afghanistan and the Philippines, is widely tipped to become DoD’s assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia.

Trump’s domestic woes, including low popularity rankings and failed policy initiatives, are already mirrored in his administration’s erratic policies towards Asia. After scrapping former president Barack Obama’s much-touted “pivot” policy toward Asia, a dual-track gambit aimed at countering China’s rise through trade and security initiatives, Trump has still vowed to “remain active and engaged in Asia” under “its own formulation.”

Yet critics say Trump’s Asia policy already suffers from competence gaps and a lack of overall organizing principle. Trump’s immediate cancellation of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade initiative has been replaced with threats of potential trade actions against various Asian nations, including China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and others.

President Trump holds up the executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the Oval Office of the White House on January 23. Photo: AFP

That’s been coupled with proposed drastic cuts in American foreign aid and the State Department’s annual budget by a whopping 28%, cuts that threaten to undermine America’s already largely diminished soft power in the region, particularly among poorer nations which place national development at the core of their foreign policy priorities.

Rivals China and Russia, sensing an opportunity, have embarked on pro-active charm offensives aimed at luring erstwhile American allies such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand into their orbs. Through major initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt, One Road projects, Beijing is quickly reshaping the Southeast Asian region in its preferred design and image.

US allies such as Japan, under the single-minded leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have stepped up amid concerns of US disengagement in a desperate bid to counter China’s growing influence over the region. Key Western partners such as Australia, meanwhile, have repeatedly and openly called upon Washington to maintain a robust strategic presence in the region.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a joint press conference with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney on January 14. Photo: AFP

Smaller Southeast Asian nations, the chief beneficiaries of Obama’s proactive diplomatic engagement in the region, have noted with consternation that no high-level American official has visited the region under Trump. Vice-president Mike Pence’s scheduled stopover in Indonesia next month is expected to entail no more than a diplomatic hand shake photo op and a jet fuel stop, with no substantial discussions on the agenda.

Southeast Asian states are also concerned that Trump may expand his protectionist trade threats against China, including the possible imposition of trade sanctions on certain products, to smaller economies such as Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines, countries which have gravitated toward China but also run significant trade surpluses with the US.

Of particular interest to Southeast Asia is Trump’s earlier promise of a tougher approach to the South China Sea, including more aggressive and expanded Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) close to China’s artificially reclaimed land features in the Spratly and Paracel island chains. 

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits a border village that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War. Photo: Reuters

Tillerson, a former Exxon-Mobil chief executive, suggested at one point to impose a naval blockade, if necessary, in the contested waters, while Trump’s influential adviser, Stephen Bannon, who until yesterday sat on the National Security Council’s “principals committee,” had openly predicted a direct war with China over islands in the South China Sea within the next ten years.

Latest reports, however, suggest that the Pentagon has failed to secure the White House’s approval to conduct routine FONOPs in the contested waters. But without a competent and proven Asia specialist team in place, the fog of uncertainty will only thicken over the Trump administration’s commitment to and understanding of the region.

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