Former chief strategist Steve Bannon has left the Trump White House. Photo: AFP/Timothy A Clary
Former chief strategist Steve Bannon has left the Trump White House. Photo: AFP/Timothy A Clary

Listen closely: That gurgling sound you hear is democracy being slowly strangled in Hong Kong. Opposition politicians are being kicked off the ruling Legislative Council. Hong Kong’s legal system is being “nationalized”, that is, being brought in line with Beijing’s ideas of law and order.

Meanwhile, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) garrison stationed in Hong Kong for the past 20 years is no longer “just symbolic”, according to Beijing, but a combat-ready and “political force” that will fight to preserve China’s hold over the territory. Bit by bit, Hong Kong’s autonomy is being squeezed out of existence.

Where is US President Donald Trump in all this? The silence is deafening, but it should not surprise anyone. Trump’s commitment to Asian security and democracy was always weak, and it promises to get weaker still.

Competing inclinations

When it comes to US national-security and defense policy, Trump is, as in most things, caught between his populist-nationalist proclivities and his traditionalist-conservative inclinations. As a populist, he pushes an “America First” agenda, as promoted by his former senior adviser, Steven Bannon. This agenda manifests itself in economic competitions, characterized by trade wars and other types of economic nationalism.

Trump’s traditional-conservative beliefs, on the other hand, lead him to emphasize classic great-power competition, which stress using – and therefore building up – America’s military.

One might think these two impulses to be complementary; in reality they compete with each other, and no more so when it comes to the US role and presence in Asia.

One of the gravest problems facing Trump when it comes to reconciling these two tendencies is how to deal with a rising China. The United States has been an almost invisible presence in Asia since Trump took office, leaving a great-power vacuum in the region that China has been happy to fill.

He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he once insisted on South Korea paying for the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile systems on its soil. The US Navy did not conduct a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the South China Sea for the first five months of the year, and it has only conducted three South China Sea FONOPs since late May.

Lately, there have been indicators that Trump is becoming aware of the need to come up with an Asia strategy. He will be attending the US-ASEAN, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and East Asia Summits in November. And he recently agreed to sell US$1.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan.

The rise of ‘The Generals’

Trump himself still seems uncertain about what kind of overarching strategy and approach he wants to take concerning the Asia-Pacific region. Recent events within the White House, however, suggest that between pursuing a populist-nationalist or a traditionalist-conservative agenda, more and more his administration’s policy is moving closer to the latter than the former.

The ouster of Bannon in particular points to the rising supremacy of the traditionalists, led by “Trump’s Generals”: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H R McMaster (all retired or active-duty three- or four-stars).

This shift can be seen in Trump’s recently announced Afghanistan strategy, which revealed a considerable deference to the US military leadership, particularly to Kelly and McMaster. A renewed commitment to “winning” in Afghanistan, and of increasing troop levels in the country, stood in stark contrast to Bannon’s call for pulling out and “privatizing” the conflict, that is, using military contractors to run the war.

But will The Generals stand up to China?

At the same time, it is not certain whether the apparent rise of the more temperate factions in the White House – the so-called “globalists” – will augur well for a more assertive US strategy toward Asia, and toward China in particular. In particular, it is not certain how the clique of “The Generals” will deal with China as an aggressive power, particularly in the South China Sea.

While confining most of his attention toward the economic side of the Sino-American rivalry, Bannon nevertheless saw the United States and China in a strategic competition. The Bannon wing was at least prepared to confront China, and this raised the possibility of a renewed and reinvigorated “pivot to Asia”.

Now, with Bannon gone, the globalists, who are supposedly heavily influenced by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, will likely favor a more cooperative and “integrationist” approach toward Beijing.

Bannon’s departure from the White House may reinforce this reconciliation with China. In fact, after an initial round of China-bashing, the Trump administration seems to be sending signals that are much more conciliatory to Beijing. Trump bragged about his newfound friendship with President Xi Jinping after their April meeting at Mar-a-Lago, in particular, sharing a “beautiful piece of cake”.

At the same time, Trump desperately craves China’s help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and he may be willing to make sacrifices in other areas of Asian security in order to obtain that assistance. There have been concerns among Asian allies that Trump may forsake them for improved Sino-American ties.

Moreover, the Trump White House is beleaguered by a host of internal problems, including the ongoing Russia scandal and his often self-wounding tweets. In general, his attention span does not appear to be spent much on developments and problems in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is likely that the Trump administration will increasingly pass over such Asian disputes as those in the South China Sea. Trump’s foreign-policy and security emphasis appears focused mainly on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and Afghanistan, freezing out most of the rest of Asia; this tendency appears to be seconded by his leading national-security staffers.

Increasingly, therefore, America’s allies and partners in Asia – and especially around the South China Sea – are on their own.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

Richard A. Bitzinger

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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