What North Korea’s Statement against Trump Really Means

It would be hard to deny that rhetoric on and around the Korean peninsula is at a high mark. United States President Donald Trump’s words about “fire and fury” aimed at North Korea sounded almost like the typical rhetoric coming from North Korea. North Korea’s response, seemingly implying a threat of bombing Guam, was unusually direct and concrete.

Still, it is important to remember one key fact that has gotten lost in the bluster and chatter: Neither Trump’s statement, nor North Korea’s response, imply any change of the status quo.

Trump’s words were dangerously crude, and struck a tone that previous American presidents have not taken toward North Korea. At the end of the day, however, striking North Korea has never not been an option for the Unites States. Within the strategic confines of the North Korean nuclear issue, it has always been implied that the U.S. would consider striking North Korea should it sense serious, imminent and tangible threats against itself or its allies. That is what overflights of bombers over the Korean peninsula—which the U.S. has often conducted after North Korean provocations and did only a few days ago—intends to signal. Trump’s statement was reportedly spontaneous, rather than a result of newly calculated U.S. language or new red lines. In other words, it was not intended to signal a change of policy. 

Similarly, North Korea’s threat against Guam was not a shift of position. The whole point of North Korea demonstrating its ICBM-capacities is to show the U.S. that it has the capacity to strike its mainland, or islands such as Guam. It is worth re-reading the central passages in full:

The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base in which the U.S. strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the U.S.

The plan is to be soon reported to the Supreme Command soon after going through full examination and completion and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.

The execution of this plan will offer an occasion for the Yankees to be the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK closest.[1]

Note the following:

  1. The KPA (Korea People’s Army, North Korea’s military) is, according to KCNA, “carefully examining the operational plan” for striking Guam. That’s not exactly a threat of imminent bombing. Rather, it is simply stating that North Korea has plans readily available for how it would attack Guam, should it choose to do so. Anything else would be surprising given North Korea’s tense relationship with the United States, and its heavy emphasis on missiles in its strategic doctrine.
  2. That the plan is to be reported to Kim Jong-un, and will be put into practice if Kim Jong-un decides it should be, is also not a change of policy. Remember: Kim Jong-un is the supreme commander of the North Korean military. He could order any attack he wants at any time. This fact was true yesterday, and will likely be true tomorrow as well. Of course, the wording of the statement makes it sound as if though North Korea might launch an attack in the near future. But North Korea threatens its neighbors and adversaries in regular intervals. Consider the following paragraph from a news report in the spring of 2013, another time when tensions ran high between North Korea and the U.S., citing a North Korean statement:

“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it said. “The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”

In other words, North Korea regularly makes it a point to remind its adversaries of its capabilities. In terms of pure language, this time appears to be no different.

None of this is to say that the current tensions are not dangerous. Words eventually need to be backed up by action for them to carry any meaning. In situations like this one, the danger of escalation beyond the point of no return, and of miscalculation, is grave and serious. That is precisely why words and rhetoric must not be overblown, and understood in their proper context. 


[1] Source: Korean Central News Agency, “U.S. Should Be Prudent under Present Acute Situation: Spokesman for KPA Strategic Force,” August 9, 2017. North Korean outlets always write Kim Jong Un’s name in bold, and in a larger font.

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Why We Must Recognize North Korea

The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.

This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.

On June 21. 2017  United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” [1] Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.”[2] South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.

But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.

No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.

Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal  a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.

Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.[3]

At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.

No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.

This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies.  My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.

Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with  rogue nations.  She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.

These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.

Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] http://www.teletrader.com/news/details/39290551?ts=1499882856534

[2] https://koreas.liveuamap.com/en/2017/7-july-tillerson-says-trump–and–putin-had-a-pretty-good

[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat  This is the source for all figures save those labeled “author’s estimate”.

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Of Modi and Trump: A Case of Continuity?

Indo-U.S. relations, despite some inevitable vicissitudes, had been mostly on an upswing since the second Clinton administration. After dramatic progress on multiple fronts during the two terms of George W. Bush, it had briefly appeared to be in the doldrums during the first Obama administration. Two issues in particular had vexed New Delhi. The administration had been overly solicitous of India’s long-standing and long-term adversary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and had sought to link the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan with the U.S. role in Afghanistan. India had responded coolly toward the first overture and had expressed outright hostility toward the second. The administration, after its initial flirtation with the PRC did not play out well, changed tack. Also, faced with a blunt and unyielding stance from India on the other matter, it backtracked from linking the two issues.

Indeed following Obama’s visit to India in October 2010, the relationship had undergone a significant course correction. Among other matters, Obama was the first U.S. president to publicly, if in a qualified fashion, endorse India’s quest to join the United Nations as a Permanent Member. This gesture, though hedged with suitable qualifications, was of extraordinary significance to the Indian foreign policy elite, for whom the goal is of talismanic dimensions.

President Trump’s assumption of office came as a surprise to India’s policymakers. To compound matters, Trump had railed against the India’s use of the H-1B visas during the campaign—an issue of no trivial significance to India’s multi-billion dollar information technology industry. Apart from this populist rant, he had expressed scant interest in India and shortly after getting elected had lauded the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in a phone call. Subsequently, earlier this year, Trump had publicly accused India of seeking billions of dollars from advanced industrial countries in exchange for its support for the Paris climate change accords.

All these statements had been of cold comfort to India’s foreign policy establishment. Nor had the administration sought to reassure India that it would pursue policy continuity in other areas such as defense cooperation or regional security through high-level diplomatic contacts. In fact, the only official of any consequence who visited India was the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster. Based upon press reports, much of his time in New Delhi had been devoted to discussions about the future of Afghanistan.

Consequently, as Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C. loomed, many within India’s foreign policy circles fretted about how Modi’s first state visit to the United States following Trump’s election would play out. Fortunately, for the most part, press reports and the detailed joint communiqué suggest that the Indo-U.S. relationship is in no imminent danger of being derailed. What are the indicators that the visit was at least a modest success and that it presages continuity in American policy toward India? Also, might there be any possible pitfalls that still lurk over the horizon? Are there issues that were left unaddressed that could come back to disturb the seeming bonhomie that the two leaders have established?

At the outset, it might be desirable to highlight what most Indian foreign policy commentators deem to be the achievements of the trip. Virtually all of them have taken note of the decision of the Trump administration to declare well-known terrorist, Syed Salauddin, the leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” Under the terms of this label, any of his financial assets in the United States will be subject to seizure, and no U.S. citizen can have contact with the individual. The practical consequences of this listing may be limited as Salauddin is unlikely to possess significant financial resources in the United States, and few Americans would be desirous of establishing contact with him anyway. That said, the designation is nevertheless important as it helps India put pressure on Pakistan, his base of operations.

Barring this decision, even a casual glance at the joint communiqué reveals that a number of subjects that had been under consideration under the Obama administration will still be pursued. In the defense arena, the previous administration had granted India the status of a Major Defense Partner. Under its aegis, India was granted access to a range of dual-use technologies. The joint statement affirmed India’s status and revealed that the U.S. has now offered India new drone technology. It has also emphasized the significance of on-going bilateral naval cooperation and an interest in its deepening and expansion.

Also, in a striking departure from past precedent, India affirmed American efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile pursuits. Previous Indian regimes had shied away from taking such bold and unequivocal stances on matters that did not directly impinge on India’s national security concerns. Similarly, without explicitly alluding to the PRC, the statement underscored the importance of the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. In many ways, these are important signs that India now envisages a wider role for itself on matters of regional security across Asia.

Some potentially contentious issues, however, seem to have been set aside. There is no mention of the nettlesome issue of H-1B visas; the matter of divergent views on climate change seem to have been mostly papered over; and there is no reference to Iran’s role in the Gulf. The final issue deserves a bit of discussion. India, for a variety of compelling reasons seeks to preserve a cordial relationship with Iran. Among other matters, it has a very substantial Shia population in northern India and values their political quiescence. It is also dependent on Iran for access to natural gas. Finally, it has invested much in the development of a port facility at Chabahar in Iran to counter the PRC’s growing presence in Pakistan and to obtain land access to Afghanistan. Consequently, it would be loath to dilute this critical relationship.

The Trump administration with its fixation on Iran is no doubt aware of India’s ties to Iran. The fact that this issue in a concluding public statement has been neatly sidestepped suggests that it is not an area where there is mutual understanding. Nevertheless, it is not a matter that can be swept under a rug. At some point, the two sides will be compelled to grasp this particular nettle and not allow it to damage the overall fabric of the relationship.

A few analysts in India have suggested that the visit did not yield significant new achievements barring the U.S. decision to isolate Syed Salauddin and to nudge forward the process of defense cooperation. Such a characterization, though seemingly accurate, misses a critical point. Modi’s visit and Trump’s affirmation of a range of past policies suggests that there is no rupture in the relationship. With the significant ballast that it has acquired over the past decade and a half, the absence of any dramatic turns under the Trump administration demonstrates that it can withstand a significant shift in the overarching orientation of U.S. foreign policy.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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President Trump on NATO—Never Mind?

While watching President Trump’s April 12 press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, I was reminded of a famous quotation often (though probably erroneously) attributed to Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

That quote maintains its popularity despite its dubious provenance because of its deft jab at the arrogance and solipsism of youth, but it can also be used as a metaphor for “outsider” presidential candidates. When one is relatively innocent of specific knowledge, it is easy to imagine that those with whom one disagrees are either ignorant or malevolent. Only as one grows in wisdom through experience can one begin to understand the reasoning behind decisions, and to see that those allegedly ignorant oldsters or insiders may actually be more sensible than one thought.

Thus has it been with Donald Trump and NATO. During the presidential campaign, Candidate Trump repeatedly denounced NATO as “obsolete” and attacked our European allies for failing to “pay their fair share” for their defense by meeting NATO’s defense budget target of two percent of GDP. After about three months in office, and a morning’s discussion with the alliance’s suave Norwegian civilian leader, President Trump declared, “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete.”

What changed? According to President Trump, the alliance responded to his criticisms by devoting more attention to fighting terrorism and by discussing ways they could live up to their budgetary responsibilities, and thus (re-)gained his confidence. Secretary General Stoltenberg, like other European leaders, was polite enough not to quibble, preferring to welcome the president’s new sentiments rather than question his motivations. That’s the kind of tact that has allowed Stoltenberg to have such a successful career in international relations.

Policy analysts (and bloggers, of course) are less constrained by diplomatic niceties. So, it has to be said that President Trump’s praise of NATO’s alleged maturation is on par with Twain’s praise of his old man. Even while President Trump was demanding that NATO pay more attention to terrorism over the past year, people with actual knowledge of NATO operations had been discussing the alliance’s declarations and practical steps in that direction for over a decade. Stoltenberg himself had described those efforts in January 2016, and the alliance has been involved in combating extremism in Afghanistan since 2002. NATO has not changed overnight, but the president’s level of knowledge about the alliance’s work, and its importance to the United States’s global strategy, certainly has.

The last few weeks have seen President Trump make many discoveries about how much more complex the world is than he imagined during the campaign—from China’s currency policies to the proper responses to Syria and North Korea; from health care to the interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve. On China’s role in North Korea, the president declared that it only took a ten-minute discussion with Xi Jinping to make him realize his previous lack of understanding. It may have taken Jens Stoltenberg longer. Further reassessments of campaign assertions are no doubt on the horizon as the president settles into the responsibilities of governing.

This is not to say that NATO is perfect, nor even to say that Trump’s criticisms of the alliance were baseless, even if they were expressed in unusually hostile terms. Europeans and Americans have debated the proper sharing of strategic, budgetary, and leadership burdens for about as long as the alliance has existed, and with greater intensity since the end of the Cold War appeared to remove the alliance’s original raison d’être. Presidents and Secretaries of State and Defense have hectored NATO allies for years to be more active in advancing the alliance’s strategic goals and to be less parsimonious with their defense spending. Those debates will and should continue, just as we should hope that the president’s recognition of NATO’s value will lead to better intra-alliance negotiations about future alliance goals and policies.

A president being forced by circumstance to walk back confident campaign declarations is not unprecedented—consider Bill Clinton’s denunciations of the “Butchers of Beijing,” George W. Bush’s disdain for nation building, or even Barack Obama’s rejection of the individual mandate for health insurance. In the case of President Trump, the phenomenon is so notable both because the original statements were so categorical and because the pirouettes have come in such rapid succession so early in his term.

Being willing to learn and change positions based on new information is certainly better than closing one’s eyes to reality. The challenge comes when the president has to stop swinging between extremes and settle down to the steady realities of governing. Then, we will see whether the new positions are built on a firmer foundation of understanding than the old.

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Trump, Tsai, and the Three Communiques: Prospects for Stability in US-China-Taiwan Relations

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 and the U.S.-China Joint Communiques of 1979 and 1982 have been essential foundations of a bilateral relationship that has remained impressively stable while it has become much broader, deeper, multifaceted, and globally important than either side could have expected forty-five years ago, and as it has faced challenges created by China’s rapid rise.

The U.S. and China have had different understandings of these fundamental texts.  To China, the Communiques embody binding international commitments. For the U.S., they are two sides’ parallel statements of deeply entrenched policies.  Where China sees U.S. acceptance of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the U.S. insists that it merely acknowledges the existence of a view ostensibly shared on both sides of the Strait.  From the U.S. perspective, the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and—less securely—President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances stand alongside the Three Communiques as authoritative statements of U.S. policy.  For China, the additional documents lack such stature and have been sources of U.S. failures to implement commitments in the Communiques, particularly on arms sales to Taiwan.

Despite such divergences, the Communiques have underpinned a mutually acceptable framework for handling what was once the most serious problem for U.S.-China relations and remains a major area of potential discord today: Taiwan.  For the U.S., the arrangement has meant adopting a “one China policy” that eschews support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” Taiwan independence, diplomatic relations or security pacts with the government in Taipei, support for Taiwan’s joining states-member-only organizations, and so on.  For China, it has meant acquiescing (although with objections) in U.S. policies and practices that support a functionally autonomous Taiwan, including robust informal relations, some level of arms sales, advocating Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the international system, and insistence that any resolution of the cross-Strait issue be peaceful and (since the Clinton administration) have the assent of the people of Taiwan.

Perhaps the most important practical contribution of the Communiques (and the TRA) has been to provide a fixed anchor for U.S. policy—one on which Beijing has been able to rely.  Occasionally, U.S. presidents or officials have appeared to deviate from policies rooted in the documents.  Sometimes, these moves seemed “pro-Taiwan,” as when President George W. Bush said he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, or when President Bill Clinton offered what Beijing saw as excessive support for the unacceptably “pro-independence” Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui.  Other times, the seeming shifts were “pro-Beijing,” as when Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Taiwan lacked sovereignty and seemed to imply support for reunification, or when President Barack Obama omitted a robust reference to Taiwan, while reaffirming respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a joint statement during his 2009 visit to China.  When these disturbances have occurred, U.S. leaders have retreated to the “big four” texts and reassured nervous audiences in Beijing, Taipei, and elsewhere that there was no change in policy.  This has been good for stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations.  The bounds the Communiques have set for both sides have helped contain even serious crises, including those surrounding China’s missile tests in the Strait in the mid-1990s and Taiwan’s referendum on entry into the United Nations in 2008.

Will this pattern persist in a new difficult period, with Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump in power?  Trump’s early moves have been, at best, extreme versions of the apparent departures from established policy undertaken by other administrations.  Trump appeared to move in a “pro-Taiwan” direction when he accepted Tsai’s congratulatory phone call.  Much more alarming for Beijing, Trump declared the one China policy to be negotiable, and linked its continuation to possible Chinese concessions on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea.  Trump statements also shook Taiwan, where his suggestion that the one China policy was a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with China implied that Taiwan might be a bargaining chip too, and where candidate Trump’s less-than-reassuring statements about commitments to treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea undermined confidence in the U.S.’s thinner and less formal support for Taiwan’s security.

It is encouraging that the Trump administration has imitated its predecessors in returning to the shelter of long-established policy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that there were no plans to change the one China policy, and Trump promised, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the U.S. would “honor” the one China policy.  While these are welcome moves, concerns continue.  Trump framed his pledge as granting a request from Xi, not as reconfirming unshakeable U.S. policy.  Like many of Trump’s statements, it may be fleeting, soon to be undercut by a tweet.  Disturbingly absent from Trump administration statements have been strong references to the Three Communiques and the TRA—the traditional underpinnings of stability in U.S. policy.  Recommitment to those foundational documents is especially important today, with a U.S. leader prone to extraordinary volatility, a leader in Taiwan distrusted by Beijing, and a leader in China who has said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be passed on “from generation to generation.”

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Is Trump Russia’s Manchurian Candidate? No. Here’s Why

 

“Is Trump a Manchurian Candidate?” The Trump as “Manchurian Candidate” scenario has been a constant query for my colleagues and I since we published our warnings in August and November last year about Russia’s influence campaign on the U.S. presidential election. This loosely plays along the plot line of the 1959 novel and follow up 1962 movie where a communist conspiracy tries to install a dictatorial president in the U.S. In the most dire conspiracy theories today, Donald Trump is portrayed as a covert Russian operative ceding control of America to an ascendant Vladimir Putin. Trump’s supporters instead see the inverse – a new populist president focused on “America First,” seeking to make deals and secure peace through a worldview and foreign policy similar to Russia. Evidence for either of these scenarios remains scant, and conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum should consider that reality likely rests somewhere in between. Trump’s Russia connections and Putin’s overt support for “the Donald” should be evaluated not as dichotomous positions, but as the ends of a spectrum of four possible scenarios (Figure 1).

 

Scenario #1: “Natural Ally”

President Trump and many of his supporters contend that the new administration represents nothing more than the natural alliance between two men seeking their own country’s interests through toughness. Trump’s affinity for Russia dates back to the late 1980s by some accounts, and his business pursuits in the country have been well documented.

 

The “natural ally” explanation for Trump’s Russian affinity would only make sense if the president had an enduring worldview and foreign policy stance over several electoral cycles that justified and explained why an alliance with Russia would be both good for America and put “America first.” President Trump may know business, but foreign policy is not his bailiwick. Prior to his jump into the presidential race, Trump didn’t espouse any clear foreign policy stances suggesting his national security views in general, particularly in regards to Russia. On rare instances where Trump stated foreign policy views prior to his presidential run, he often contradicted himself (i.e. U.S. invasion of Iraq). Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study.

 

Scenario #2: “Useful Idiot”

Russian influence of Trump most likely falls into the category of what Madeleine Albright called a “Useful Idiot” – a “useful fool” – an enthusiast for Putin supportive of any issue or stance that feeds his ego and brings victory. Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence. By spotting this early, Russia could encourage Trump’s ascension and shape his views via three parallel tracks. First, Russia led a never before seen hacking and influence campaign to degrade support for Hilary Clinton and promote Trump among a disenfranchised American populace. As a “useful idiot,” Trump not only benefited from this influence effort, but he urged Russia to find Hilary Clinton’s missing emails – a public call a “Manchurian Candidate” (see Scenario 4 below) would not likely make. Trump even fell for false Russian news stories citing a bogus Sputnik news story at a presidential rally – a glaring and open mistake that would reveal a true “Manchurian Candidate.”

 

Second, political operatives of other Russian campaigns mysteriously surfaced as close advisors whispering Kremlin lines in Trump’s ear, modifying his world view, sliding in Russian foreign policy positions as mainstream American positions, and even altering the Republican platform to support a Russian position over a Ukrainian ally. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager who previously worked in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, mistakenly cited a debunked Russia false news story about a terrorist attack on Incirlik airbase in Turkey as a final show of Russian influence before being fired. Carter Page, a Trump campaign linkage, denies being an agent, but has waffled on his meetings with Russian diplomats. The ex-MI6 agent’s dossier alleged secret meetings between Trump officials and Russian agents, but these have yet to be confirmed.

 

Third, Russia used overt influence and ultimately compromised key Trump advisors and appointees. The former MI6 officer’s dossier noted Russia’s deliberate attempts to sway Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Trump’s first National Security Advisor retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. This verifiable claim surfaced in the lead up to the presidential election with Flynn’s paid attendance at an RT event and the fact that he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin called into question the zealous general’s allegiance in his vengeful rants against an Obama administration that fired him. Flynn then lied about his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak prior to the inauguration which lead to his resignation. Now, Attorney General Sessions has potentially lied during confirmation hearings about meeting this same Ambassador Kislyak during the presidential campaign resulting in his recusing himself from all issues regarding Trump’s ties to Russia. Trump aides have also allegedly been pushing for a back channel deal between Ukraine and Russia, a maneuver between liaisons more typical of a “useful idiot” rather than “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. This sort of meddling provides the Kremlin plausible deniability and still achieves Russia’s objectives: breaking up the European Union, dissolving NATO, and weakening of American influence.

 

Scenario #3: Compromised

President Trump has been bullish on ISIS, China, and Iran, but has curiously been quite amenable to Russia. One explanation put forth regarding his toughness on all American enemies except Russia is that he is compromised – vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government due to sexual compromise or financial entanglements. Under this scenario, President Trump would not be doing the bidding of Putin on a day-to-day basis, but would bend as needed to a Russian foreign policy position in order to protect himself from public disclosures and the resulting political backlash.

 

The former British intelligence officer’s dossier made salacious claims of sexual misconduct by Trump during a visit to St. Petersburg. But rumors of sexual compromise have yet to bring forth any real evidence of misbehavior. Furthermore, Russia would have a hard time sexually compromising a president who has been married three times, who may have bragged about his sexual prowess while posing as his own publicist, and who was caught using misogynistic speech in a leaked video. President Trump compromised himself in this fashion, and the voters didn’t seem to care. Should Russia release the alleged provocative video tape now, they would only confirm their meddling and achieve nothing – the dossier leak and U.S. government discussion of the dossier likely inoculated the president from any compromise on a sexual basis if anything even existed.

 

Trump claims no financial ties to Russia, but these allegations still remain open due to Trump’s refusal to show his tax records and the media’s failure to show any discernible financial ties to Russia. This situation may change in the future and could damage the president. More recently, President Trump’s son appears to have received $50,000 from a pro-Russia group in the weeks leading up to the election. This revelation, alongside absent tax records, suggests that President Trump and his family might be currently or in the future financially compromised through business interests that have not been properly divested by the president – business interests tied to or manipulated by Russia without the full knowledge of the First Family.

 

Scenario #4: Manchurian Candidate

On the other end of the spectrum, those most traumatized by Trump’s victory have questioned if the U.S. has fallen under the command of the world’s most cunning authoritarian: Vladimir Putin. A “Manchurian Candidate” Trump would be a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House.

 

This scenario is unlikely to be the case for several reasons. Trump’s behavior and policy positions sway with the wind. The famous former British intelligence officer dossier argued that Trump’s behavior in the lead up to the election caused unease amongst Kremlin leaders backing him. Trump openly discusses Russian connections and seems to be unaware of his closest aides ties and contacts to Russian diplomats and intelligence assets. Even Trump’s unfounded tweet storm about the wiretapping of Trump Tower would pose a threat to Russia under the “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. A Russian-directed U.S. president would be more deliberate in policy positions and would conceal rather than discuss connections with Russia. To date, no direct financial or physical contacts and communications can be directly tied to President Trump.

 

Most importantly, a Manchurian Candidate scenario, if it came to light, would likely result in direct war between the U.S. and Russia. The Russians started their second Cold War with the U.S. years ago, and they are winning. They don’t need a Manchurian candidate; that’s higher cost and higher risk to their efforts. They prefer systematic, indirect, asymmetric engagements that incrementally achieve their goals rather than provoking the U.S. into a direct clash militarily and economically – a fight the Kremlin would likely lose.

 

 

What are the implications of these Russian connections for Trump and America?

Regardless of President Trump’s relationship to Russia, the repeated disclosure of Russian influence and connections to his campaign and staff have created considerable turmoil in the White House and America as a whole. Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.

 

More importantly, President Trump appears strongly influenced by those in his inner circle. So if they have connections to Russia, whether President Trump knows it or not, he will, at times, be Russia’s pawn on foreign policy issues.

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National Security Advisor McMaster: The Good and Bad of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice – General Officer Edition”

“I’ve got Captain McMaster for MilArt!” West Point cadets enrolled in Military History 302 during the early 1990’s spoke with pride if they were the lucky few drawing McMaster’s section.  They studied combat under the tutelage of Desert Storm’s most notable young war hero – the commander of E Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment whose unit decimated Iraqi forces at the battle of 73 Easting.  McMaster led by example, inspired young cadets, soldiers and officers – both up and down the chain-of-command with his knowledge and spirit.  Today, Lieutenant General McMaster continues this legacy becoming National Security Advisor and hopefully saving America from a calamitous start to a new presidential administration.

National security scholars immediately cheered President Trump’s replacement after the disastrously short tenure of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn.  Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster too is a popular Army general but more qualified and better suited for the position in every way compared to Flynn.  While General David Petraeus often receives credit for the military’s great “surge” in Iraq a decade ago, McMaster, as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal`Afar, largely invented and honed the counterinsurgency approach later adopted by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A hero of two wars, McMaster’s inspirational inclusive leadership has won him supporters up and down the ranks in contrast to Flynn’s divisiveness and spite for the Obama administration, which won President Trump’s ear but immediately created a wedge between the intelligence community and the new administration. Flynn’s relationship and perceived influence by Russia led to a scandal bringing his demise.  McMaster on the other hand, as typified by every chapter in his career, recently helped move the U.S. Army out of the counterterrorism era preparing U.S. forces for the sophisticated rise of Russian hybrid warfare used in Ukraine. McMaster’s selection will likely bring unity and focus in countering Russia aggression as compared to Flynn’s bizarre romance with a nation that compromised him.

For Americans fearful of an ideological Stephen Bannon-Mike Flynn cabal propelling the U.S. into an apocalyptic showdown with Islam, McMaster may be the perfect pick for National Security Advisor. He’ll take in information and opinions, study the details, design the strategy, implement it, and drive it through the administration.  McMaster’s competence and battlefield creativity arrives from years of scholarship where he earned both a doctorate and penned an essential tome, Dereliction Of Duty, describing U.S. mistakes in the Vietnam war – notably the failure of U.S. generals to stand up to civilian leadership.  McMaster adapted this lesson into his own career — known for speaking his mind even when it may have cost him promotions. McMaster will be an essential voice to counter President Trump’s affinity for crazy conspiracies of those inside or outside the administration – whether it is chief strategist Bannon or InfoWar’s Alex Jones

Trump’s pick of McMaster seems more palatable in light of his previous choice Flynn, but Americans should be vexed by President Trump’s apparent insecurity with regards to national security. In Trump’s game of national security ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ – only famous military flag officers can participate. Having initially appointed three former generals as National Security Advisor and the heads of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, Trump next offered the National Security Advisor position to former Navy SEAL Vice Admiral Bob Harward who turned down the job.  Again, retired General David Petraeus’ name rose into discussions as a replacement, but Petraeus signaled fear of the position noting in Munich:

“Whoever it is that would agree to take that position certainly should do so with some very, very significant assurances that he or she would have authorities over the personnel of the organization — that there would be a commitment to a disciplined process and procedures”.

Reports on Saturday noted four candidates in contention for the position – three of whom were generals.  The lone civilian mentioned, John Bolton, has, for some, a radioactive reputation and too hawkish views.

President Trump’s confused worldview, love for celebrity, and desire to appear tough has him reaching for those who embody what he is not: a strong commander-in-chief. Trump appears unable to envision any viable civilians for top defense positions. This fame fueled policy pattern is not limited to national security either. Trump’s preference for celebrity over credentials appears in domestic politics where he appointed well known presidential candidate and later backer Ben Carson, a doctor, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development despite having no experience in the discipline or bureaucratic management expertise. Trump paired this odd choice alongside meetings with musician Kanye West and comedian Steve Harvey to discuss cultural issues and inner city problems. In all cases, Trump prefers names he sees on Twitter to those he could review in resumes.

Aside from the singular focus on military generals, Trump’s national security team represents a “Team of Friends” rather than a “Team of Rivals”—the inverse approach pursued by President Obama in 2008.  Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster—and Flynn before him—all fought the last decade’s counterinsurgencies on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If America needs to fight and win a land war in Asia, no better assemblage of leaders could be collected. Their cohesion will aid communication and bring needed unity of command to a Trump administration off to a disastrous start.

But the “Team of Friends” approach has a downside as well. Trump’s celebrity generals ground combat depth is unparalleled, and their lack of national security breadth is unprecedented.  All are masters in the art of war, but none would be thought of as natural diplomats, economic savants, purveyors of air power, nerds in naval operations, executors of law enforcement and intelligence operations, cyber savvy tacticians, interagency hardball champions, or nation-state chess players. Even more, generals believing they could operate on fewer resources are rarer than snow leopards, calling into question Trump calls for future government cost cutting. 

Traditionally, national security teams seek a diverse blend of civil servants, academics, intelligence professionals and military veterans to adequately prepare the country for a host of scenarios and adversaries. Trump’s generals, no doubt, will be the best fit to fight the Islamic State today and al Qaeda last decade. But, this crew seems ill-suited for many top national security challenges. Easing tensions with China and Iran, quelling Russian cyber attacks and influence operations, restoring alliances in Europe and the Middle East, preparing for the security effects of climate change in the Arctic and mitigating nuclear proliferation – none of these issues will be areas where Trump’s generals will naturally excel. 

McMaster’s selection as National Security will present a tradeoff for U.S. national security.  McMaster is a good choice who will provide stability, experience, discipline and above all a clear head to a White House inner circle littered with ideologues pushing simultaneously for wars with China, Iran, and “Radical Islam.” His first challenge will be to corral the most bizarre and reckless assemblage of White House advisors he inherited. McMaster’s intelligence and deep connections to more reasonable pragmatists like Secretary of Defense Mattis will hopefully prevent the nation from a fall into an ill-conceived conflict. 

At another level though, the U.S. must ultimately return its national security to civilian leadership as designed. National security executed by such a narrow set of military ground commanders will leave America framing all engagements as war, prepared for too few adversaries and focused on a limited set of options. McMaster is the general America needs today, but moving forward America needs fewer generals and a more diverse national security team combining the best of both the military and civilian world moving forward.   

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Yesterday was not a good day in American history

Yesterday was not a good day in American history:

  • We initiated a migration ban on seven Muslim countries, although no major terrorism plot against the U.S. since 9/11 has come from those countries. There are countries that have supplied terrorists in directed plots against the U.S. since 9/11, but they are not on the list. I’m guessing they have been excluded because there are serious financial and business consequences if we were to designate these countries similarly.
  • We stopped Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. even though there are zero incidents of Syrian refugees infiltrating the U.S. to conduct an attack. America’s ISIS recruits and their plots are overwhelmingly homegrown, not foreign infiltrators.
  • We proposed building a wall to stop illegal immigration, even though illegal immigration has been steadily declining for years. We’ve proposed no realistic solutions for the legal immigration of migrant workers or a path to citizenship for them. Walls never work and we could be spending our national resources on things that promote American good (education and health, cough cough, American first) rather than blocking out irrational fears.
  • We again brought up the idea of reintroducing torture, because we need to “fight fire with fire,” even though we know torture doesn’t work, thus justifying our actions by the lowest standard of our adversaries, undermining our principles, all to appear ‘tougher’ rather than ‘better’ than our adversaries. 

Regardless of whether one is a Republican or Democrat, or if these policies don’t come to fruition, it’s hard to understand how any of these policies are about putting America first, or “Making America Great Again.” We pride ourselves on phrases like “nothing to fear but fear itself” but it appears that we have nothing to fear but being insufficiently scared of things that are sometimes real but mostly imagined.

This morning, for the first time in my life, I cannot say that we are the home of the free and the brave, the ones that free the oppressed, that everyone has an equal opportunity, or that we will make the tougher, right decisions in the face of adversity. Even after the 9/11 attacks, and missteps in the War on Terror, I could say this. Today I cannot.

We say we want to “Make America Great Again” but somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that what made America great was that we, Americans, were the world’s refugees, we were the earth’s oddballs that came together and created the best system of governance, invented the world’s advancements, worked harder than the rest, earned our place in the world, promoted and fought for the ideals of freedom and liberty at home and abroad, and worked to give everyone, American or not, an opportunity to make the best life for themselves, their loved ones and their communities.

America is great when we face our fears, don’t compromise our principles, lead by example, and make hard, short-term choices for the greater good of humanity. We know we are great, when others around the world want to emulate us, join us and befriend us.

We are not great because we tell ourselves we are. We are not great because of enticing deals, phony tough talk, or giving into our fears — fears increasingly fueled by bogus narratives. America is not the best country in world history because we said,” stay away, leave us alone, we can do all this by ourselves!”

We landed on the moon, won world wars, achieved standards of living never witnessed in human history, and rescued the downtrodden and the unfortunate from natural and man-made peril. We did all this because no one else could, no one else would, it wasn’t “America First,” it was “America the Beautiful.”

Many will see this through their own partisan lens (shocking!). I know and like many of the more responsible appointees coming into parts of the administration and I hope they can re-direct things soon. But the past week’s words and policies have consequences. America is “not safer” and definitely not “greater” by any of these new policies from the first week.

The pendulum will swing back, and I hope not too many Americans, particularly those in uniform that have carried the greatest sacrifice since 9/11, suffer the consequences of this past week’s tough talk.

President Trump may be the best thing for America in the end, not because he makes us great again, but because he makes us, as Americans, want to be great again in spite of him, not because of him.

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Why al Qaeda and Islamic State Threats To Attack The West Should Be Taken More Seriously Now

Much like other moments when al Qaeda seemed destined for defeat, an emerging force arises to breathe life into the ranks of global jihadists: this time, it was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the last eighteen months has focused on being “tougher” on the Islamic State despite the group’s steady decline throughout the presidential campaign. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s leaders could not craft a more preferable American foreign policy for promoting global jihad if they tried. Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, advocated the return of torture, suggested aligning with Russia and by extension the Assad regime against the Islamic State, vowed to fill the Guantanamo detention center with “bad dudes,” and rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees.

Each of these policy positions demonstrates a complete reversal of U.S. strategy and narrative going back to 2006 when first the Bush and later the Obama administrations sought to narrow the fight to core terror group members and extract America from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming up on sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, Team Trump seems committed to affirming al Qaeda’s original justifications for attacking the U.S. – i.e., defeat the “far enemy” they believe backs apostate regimes (“near enemy”) suppressing the Muslim world.

For terrorists with a globalist view, particularly members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Trump administration is a dream come true. Jihadi globalists have argued for decades that the Muslim world was at war with the West. Trump’s top national security advisors agree. Bin Laden, if he were still alive, or Zawahiri today could not have picked an opposition team more perfect to their narratives and purpose than what will arrive in office on January 20. LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Advisory, has called “Islam a Cancer,” and he routinely lumps a wide range of disparate adversaries into a grand evil alliance. His discussion of a broad war on an amorphous, largely undefined “Radical Islam” has been echoed by Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares who collectively have alleged the creeping of Sharia law in the United States and the penetration of the U.S. government’s intelligence services by the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have advocated for allying with Russia and partnering with dictators to put down the Islamic State. These advisors and many of their harder line supporters in the U.S. government have advocated for years a hedgehog (“one big thing”) solution – ridding the world of “Radical Islam” (whatever that may be).

Scenario: Yeehaw vs. Jihad – The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of a Global Terrorist Showdown

Trump and his national security team must be tough moving forward or risk becoming a fraud in the face of adversity. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where aggressive clamping down on a broad jihadi conspiracy entices extremists to attack. Meanwhile, jihadists with a globalist view seek to drag the U.S. into war in a Muslim country, hoping to unite the followers of Islam under their banner in a global battle against the West. Each side gets the fight they seek; both sides ultimately prove themselves right through their aggression.

If Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda to be thrust back into the spotlight, regain steam during the Islamic State’s decline, pull the U.S. to over-commit again in the Middle East, bring the West to back apostate dictators, seal an alliance between Russia and the U.S., unify divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and convince Muslims worldwide that the West is, in fact, at war with Islam, now is the time to attack. The Islamic State is similarly motivated to strike. Any remaining Islamic State fighters with access to Western targets might have one last chance to revive a shrinking caliphate. A pinprick strike against a U.S. target in the homeland or even abroad might very well set off a Trump administration poised for a dramatic, over-sized response. Even further, Trump’s advisors and appointees appear dangerously out of sync for the start of a new administration.

Two years ago, al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri told the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra to hold back on attacking the West. Curiously, Zawahiri appears no longer hesitant about striking the U.S. stating in his January 5 speech, “We invite our mujahid nation to make the jihad against the modern day false idol, America, and its allies, their first priority as much as they can afford.”

The question, today, for Zawahiri and jihadi globalists, isn’t “should we attack?” but “can we attack?” The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued external operations cells planning attacks in the West. Al Qaeda likely doesn’t have a 9/11-sized attack in its pipeline. But, they also don’t need such scale to provoke the U.S. The Islamic State or al Qaeda could execute gun runs and bombings reminiscent of the Islamic State’s recent Ramadan campaign hitting Westerners abroad. The abundance of Trump properties worldwide also provides an array of symbolic targets for jihadists to hit to further provoke a thin-skinned president. Al Qaeda and its affiliates might also target the oil and gas industry, a common economic target of past campaigns, or major multinational corporations noting the ties of Trump’s ultra wealthy appointees to multinational corporations. Some might see this targeting calculus as spit-balling, but we should remember al Qaeda once targeted the Lockheed Martin CEO as an asymmetric counter to the drone program that was decimating their ranks.

I have no insight into recent rumors of an inauguration timed terrorist attack. However, the stars do seem in line for a globalist jihadi comeback (AGAIN!). This is only one of several scenarios emerging from the Islamic State’s wake, and I would note that if the West doesn’t see a directed al Qaeda attack or Islamic State attack provoking the U.S. in the next six months, then it would suggest that globalists either don’t have the capability to strike the U.S. as thought and/or that Western counterterrorism has gotten very good at detecting and disrupting terrorists ability to strike the West. Only time will tell.

Author’s Note: In October 2016, I was preparing an updated terrorism forecast regarding al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever comes next. But I got distracted by a more pressing issue. Two colleagues and I decided to publish our long study of Russian influence operations against the U.S. electorate, and this delayed completion of a longer forecast of what might come from the third foreign fighter glut after Syria. Any forecast I would have made in October would surely have been off the mark, failing to account on the unanticipated changes and uncertainty of U.S. and resulting Western foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy. Rather than do a linear sequence of posts leading up to my final foreign fighter and terrorism futures forecast, I moved this scenario forward in the series due to its immediate relevance post inauguration. The rest of “Countering Terrorism From The Third Foreign Fighter Glut” and additional scenarios will come out here at FPRI in the coming weeks.

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Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.

A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.

Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.

Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.

The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.

Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.

To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.

Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.

Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.

The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.

None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

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