By Prabasi Nepali
President Donald Trump has embarked on a speedy 12-day, 5-nation excursion/expedition of North-East and South-East Asia. It is an attempt by his foreign policy and national security experts to stabilize United States’ role in the region. It is, in fact, a continuation of President Barack Obama’s policy of ‘Pivoting’ [Swiveling] towards the Asia-Pacific, i.e. concentrating in this region and away from Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In an attempt to distinguish this “new” policy from that of Obama (after all everything that Obama achieved or even stands for is anathema to Trump, the “Great Deal-Maker”), the experts have given a new twist to this policy as a nascent re-orientation towards “Asia-Pacific” amalgamating the Pacific and Indian Oceans in a new strategic concept, and melding Japan, South Korea, India and Australia to the United States in a novel strategic partnership. If Trump was not so sure of himself, and had not become disreputable at home and abroad, his closest advisors could even promote the idea of a new “Trump Doctrine” [!]
Trump has now reached Tokyo on the first leg of his Asia tour after a brief stopover in Hawaii, where he was briefed from the US Pacific Command and visited Pearl Harbour, where before the outbreak of the Second World War, the US was caught completely unawares by a surprise Japanese air attack. Now, of course, former foes are steadfast friends and allies since nearly seven decades. The US is looking to present a united front with Japan and South Korea against North Korea as tensions run high over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. These ballistic missile tests by North Korea and its sixth and largest nuclear test to date, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, have exacerbated the most crucial international challenge of Trump’s presidency. Aerial drills conducted over South Korea by two strategic bombers from Guam have raised apprension in recent days. Trump has unnecessarily aggravated tensions by attacking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un verbally and nicknaming him “Little Rocket Man”. Kim has replied in kind, (calling him a ‘dotard’, a weak and senile old person) and now one is the nemesis of the other.
Shortly after arriving in Japan on Sunday, Trump spoke to US and Japanese forces at US Yokota air base in Tokyo. Avoiding all off-the-cuff remarks and in measured tones, Trump stressed the importance of the North-East Asian alliances to regional security.
In a display of golf diplomacy, Trump played a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, recently strengthened domestically in a landslide parliamentary victory in the Diet. The two leaders also played together in Florida earlier this year. The chemistry between them seems to function, however there are grave differences regarding trade, which have not yet been articulated. Trump is after all a grave disrupter of multilateral trade agreements. Trade will factor heavily during Trump’s Asian trip as he tries to persuade allies to agree to bilateral trade policies more favourable to the United States. This will be a problem also with China.
Trump’s trip is to be dominated by trade and how to muster more international pressure on North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. However, Trump has rattled both Japan and South Korea by threatening “fire and fury” and his vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the United States and his dismissal of Kim as on a suicide mission. His national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster has defended his boss: “What’s inflammatory is the North Korean regime and what they are doing to threaten the world.”
Both South Korea and Japan are aware that even a non-nuclear, limited conventional war would result in millions of casualties (including US military, dependants and expatriates). This has not been factored by Trump in his equation of conflict with North Korea. Trump will seek a united front with the leaders of Japan and South Korea against North Korea before visiting Beijing to make the case to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he should do more to rein in Pyongyang. Xi now the most powerful leader of China after the era of the legendary Mao Zedong, is definitely on the horns of a dilemma, but will in no circumstance go the extent of tolerating the collapse of the distasteful North Korean regime. First, this would mean millions of poor and famished refugees in China’s border areas. Second, the disintegration would create a geo-political nightmare – the withering away of a strategic buffer and the reunification of the Korean peninsula allied closely to the United States, China’s arch rival in world affairs.
Addressing US and Japanese troops at Yokota air base near Tokyo, Trump said: “no-one, no dictator, no regime . . . should underestimate American resolve”[ clearly pointing to Kim Jong Un ], as he arrived in Japan at the start of his marathon Asian tour — the longest tour of Asia by a US president in 25 years. He also pledged to ensure the US military had the resources needed to keep peace and defend freedom. Before touching down, he told reporters on board Air Force One that he expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip (in Vietnam), and also saying: “We want Putin’s help on North Korea” without considering that Russia’s role can only be very minor and supplementary.
In Tokyo, Trump went on to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for lunch before the two leaders played a round of golf. They were joined by Hideki Matsuyama, one of the world’s top golfers.
In South Korea, both the leadership and the majority of the people are appalled by the bellicose US attitude vis-à-vis North Korea. They would rather prefer a peaceful denouement of the conflict. Thus, thousands of South Koreans protested on Sunday against an upcoming visit by Trump on Wednesday. Trump himself made the Delphic utterance: “The time for strategic patience” with North Korea is over.