Clouded Reassurances in Asia

Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first official foreign visit as a member of the Trump administration. It was also the first overseas visit by any member of the new cabinet. The new Defense Secretary spent time in both South Korea and Japan, two of America’s most important allies in Asia. The choice of these two countries was deliberate: both countries are needed to help contain the nuclear threat of North Korea, and Japan is facing an encroaching Chinese presence in the East China Sea. Mattis’ goal was to reassure Seoul—which is currently facing a full-blown political crisis—and Tokyo of American commitments to their security.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign about certain allies not pulling their weight, as president, he must now work with these two countries to keep the region stable. The trip could be described as quite successful. Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a missile defense system that could protect South Korea from a potential attack by North Korea. His comments about U.S. commitments were clear: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.” That’s about as stalwart of a commitment or reassurance as any country can get. The secretary’s visit to Japan struck similar tones. In a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Defense Minister of Japan, Mattis specifically mentioned U.S. policy toward  islands that both Japan and China claim sovereignty over: “I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands — the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies.” Article 5 “recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” If the U.S. recognizes Japanese sovereignty over these islands, then the U.S. would have to use force to defend the Japanese territory if the Chinese attacked in some way.

While Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to both countries, China expressed concern and outrage over his comments in both South Korea and Japan over THAAD and the Senkaku Islands. In regards to THAAD, China believes its implementation would “undermine the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, disrupt regional strategic balance, and help in no way peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The Chinese see THAAD as not limited to containing the North Korean threat. THAAD potentially could be used to take out or track Chinese missiles in the region. The United States and South Korea are not likely to heed Chinese complaints. China released a statement challenging Mattis’ remarks about U.S. commitment to Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands: “Diaoyu [the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands] and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called US-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.” This statement is nothing new, and the issue will not go away any time soon, so it is important to Japan to receive such unwavering reassurance from the United States.

As China continues to contest sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and build artificial islands in the South China Sea, it is necessary not just for Asian nations to receive American reassurances of support, but also for the United States to continually and explicitly express its commitment to maintaining a major role in the region, especially with the transition between administrations. China will likely attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration while it is still getting its feet on the ground and begins to formulate Asia policy. Having Secretary Mattis make a trip to South Korea two weeks into the new administration demonstrates continued understanding of America’s role in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable. While the Defense Secretary offered firm reassurances to both nations, Mattis also expressed hesitation to escalate beyond the status quo. In Japan, he also noted that the administration does not “see any need for dramatic military moves” and that both the U.S. and China should “exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication.”

Unfortunately, other cabinet members and advisors have made troubling remarks about the region and U.S.-China relations. Though Mattis made the most recent of statements in regards to U.S. policy towards Asia, in the very recent past, other people in the administration have made remarks that undercut and conflict with what Mattis said. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to. . . .We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.” Such a policy would be a dramatic change from previous administrations. In December 2016, it was revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft and other weapons systems on its artificial islands in the South China Sea. If the United States were to adopt Tillerson’s policy of denial of entry, then confrontation of some sort will likely erupt since China has a significant military presence on its islands. Is the Trump administration willing to risk war to prevent China from doing what it has already done for years? What positive outcome can the new administration expect by adopting such a policy? It is especially unnerving because a Chinese official at the Central Military Commission noted that “A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”

Moreover, in March 2016, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and now a member of the National Security Council, remarked that war between the United States and China in the South China Sea is inevitable: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? . . . There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” Although Bannon’s remark predated his joining the Trump campaign in August 2016, it is dangerous for a key member of the Trump administration to have such hawkish views on China. With Bannon in the White House and influencing national security policy, such an opinion could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bannon thinks war is inevitable, so he purposefully or accidentally makes it so.

Different members of the administration have made conflicting statements about China and the Asia-Pacific region in general. Is diplomacy possible or not? Is war inevitable? Will the United States needlessly antagonize China? What are Japan and South Korea supposed to believe is the prevailing opinion or policy stance of the Trump administration? It appears that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  As Mattis was visiting Asia, the news broke about Bannon’s previous statements. Can U.S. allies in Asia count on Mattis’ reassurances and commitments? Now that Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, we must hope that he listens to his diplomats—and Secretary Mattis—and does not advocate for such an aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Branding China as the enemy this early in the administration limits how the United States can cooperate with China on important issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. What the United States and its allies can hope for is that Secretary Mattis’ reserved and cautious approach prevails.

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The National Security Strategy of Strategic Patience and Persistence?

On Friday the Obama administration released its second, and likely last, National Security Strategy. Such strategies are produced in both classified and unclassified forms and have been required since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (Goldwater-Nichols Act). They are supposed to be submitted annually along with the president’s annual budget. Like the Obama presidency, the Bush 43 administration also only produced two. By statute, USC 50, § 3043(b), they

…shall set forth the national security strategy of the United States and shall include a comprehensive description and discussion of the following:

(1) The worldwide interests, goals, and objectives of the United States that are vital to the national security of the United States.

(2) The foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy of the United States.

(3) The proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of the national power of the United States to protect or promote the interests and achieve the goals and objectives referred to in paragraph (1).

(4) The adequacy of the capabilities of the United States to carry out the national security strategy of the United States, including an evaluation of the balance among the capabilities of all elements of the national power of the United States to support the implementation of the national security strategy.

(5) Such other information as may be necessary to help inform Congress on matters relating to the national security strategy of the United States.

Such strategies, while they help to elucidate a president’s vision of threats and opportunities vis-à-vis their foreign and defense policies, are also very aspirational.

President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy reiterates the 2010 vision that the United States’ enduring interests are:

*The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;

*A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;

*Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and

*A rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

The top strategic risks are listed as:

*Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure;

*Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies;

*Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown;

*Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction;

*Severe global infectious disease outbreaks;

*Climate change;

*Major energy market disruptions; and

*Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).

President Obama in his introduction to the strategy states that 

On all these fronts [from diplomacy to military strength to nonproliferation to the promotion of democracy and human rights], America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes. The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But, we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities, and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear. Moreover, we must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power. Indeed, in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield. 

The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence. They require us to take our responsibilities seriously and make the smart investments in the foundations of our national power. Therefore, I will continue to pursue a comprehensive agenda that draws on all elements of our national strength, that is attuned to the strategic risks and opportunities we face, and that is guided by the principles and priorities set out in this strategy. Moreover, I will continue to insist on budgets that safeguard our strength and work with the Congress to end sequestration, which undercuts our national security. 

According to the strategy the U.S. will lead with strength, by example, with capable partners, with all instruments of national power, and with a long-term perspective. But the document claims that five recent transitions are complicating current international politics:

First, power among states is more dynamic [particularly India’s potential, China’s rise, and Russian aggression]…

Second, power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state [e.g, the rise of mega-cities and non-state actors]….

Third, the increasing interdependence of the global economy and rapid pace of technological change are linking individuals, groups, and governments in unprecedented ways….

Fourth, a struggle for power is underway among and within many states of the Middle East and North Africa….

Fifth, the global energy market has changed dramatically…. [D]eveloping countries now consume more energy than developed ones, which is altering energy flows and changing consumer relationships.


While the document seems to make many good arguments about the challenges facing the United States and wisely accounts for the limits of American power, particularly in the realm of the use of military force, it is unclear whether “strategic patience and persistence” will always be effective or will simply put us further behind the eight ball. The leading from behind strategy which debuted in Libya, for instance, likely created as many problems as it solved as witnessed both by the chaos unleashed in Mali after Tauregs fighting in Libya brought arms back to the Sahel and by the current instabilities in Libya itself. The sanctions in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine–and its support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia–also have not severely impacted their behavior contra claims in the strategy.

In Syria, meanwhile, strategic patience has led to a worsening situation there, in Iraq, and–increasingly–in Lebanon. Clearly the situation is not one open to easy fixes and it is not at all clear that earlier support to opposition forces would have made the situation on the ground better today. But patient reaction certainly has not made the situation better either. The “coalition” of forces corralled to deal with the situation has been disjointed and the myriad interests of partners may be creating a policy that is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Finally, the current situation in Yemen appears to show the weakness of applying a doctrine of surgical strikes (by drones and special operations forces) to deal with a metastasizing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Rather than working to build effective Yemeni security forces we seem to have focused on building their strike forces that might be useful for conducting raids, but not so much for building effective security forces that can control territory and work at building legitimacy.

Undeniably, the United States faces myriad current and future challenges. As noted in the strategy, the tools of U.S. power are limited and cannot be applied everywhere. Even U.S. military power is still encumbered by a sequestration policy that impacts readiness and procurement. The administration is right to try to undo that policy, although it is unclear if the domestic political realities will allow that to happen. We must certainly come to grips with trying to use all elements of national power, to include the use of military force, to deal with the current and future strategic environment, both in terms of threats and opportunities. However, it must also be remembered that while patience may be a virtue, sometimes selective, thoughtful assertiveness across the elements of power may help us improve conditions on the ground and advance both the United States’ and its partners’ interests.

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