Trump’s enfeebled America stands alone


July 20, 2017

Trump’s enfeebled America stands alone

Economic change has affected other countries, but they have managed globalisation

by Martin Sanbu@www.ft.com

Image result for Trump Go it Alone Foreign PolicyDonald Trump with his Foreign Policy Novice, SIL Jared Kushner

The US President used to be thought of as the leader of the free world. America’s western friends are finding that they can no longer rely on it. But the truly transforming change is that they may find they no longer need to — and that the US needs the world more than the other way around.–Martin Sandbu

The greatest challenge posed by Donald Trump’s presidency is not that he will deploy American strength against the global common good. It is that he demonstrates how weak the US has become.

Recall Mr Trump’s inaugural address. The phrase that has resounded around the world is “America first”. But the more significant phrase he used is that other, more inward-looking one: “American carnage”. What sort of country describes itself, in the words of its highest leader no less, in such terms? Not one that feels strong.

Some Americans may not recognise the dystopian conditions his speech described. But a large group surely does. American decline is not a figment of Mr Trump’s imagination. The US economy has left large numbers of people with stagnant wages for decades. It is an economy in which millions fewer people have a job than at the peak in 2000, and which still leaves tens of millions without secure, decent healthcare.

It is an economy dotted with towns that were thriving within living memory, but have been devastated by the loss of factory jobs — lost because automation made plants too productive to need as much human labour as before, or because a failure to automate made them uncompetitive against rivals.

Above all, it is an economy in which centuries-old progress against mortality has gone in reverse for middle-aged low-educated Americans, who are dying from the afflictions of broken lives and broken communities: drug overdoses, liver disease and suicide.

Deep economic change has affected other advanced economies too. But others have not let globalisation get in the way of managing it. The US is weak not because it has uniquely been cheated out of a golden age of factory jobs by foreigners, but because it has failed to create a prosperous new future for all at home.

Mr Trump’s railing against Washington is therefore not without foundation. Economic dysfunction has long been matched by glaringly inadequate governance. The devastation of the global financial crisis — which was at its core a US financial crisis, unsuspected by its regulatory system — followed the gross incompetence of the George W Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and its adventurism in Iraq.

Mr Trump’s speech in Poland before the G20 summit was the international version of his American carnage speech. Just like the US, in his telling, is a landscape of decay at the mercy of corrupt leaders, he presented the western world as mortally threatened by destructive forces because of decadence within.

But while he may be a fiery prophet of US decline, he is wrong about the wider world. If other western countries display a quiet confidence vis-à-vis Mr Trump, it is because they have reason to. Their unrepentant globalism is striking. Canada’s reconsecration of its globalist destiny matches its ambitious welcome of refugees. Europe and Japan are creating one of the world’s largest free trade areas. The EU vows not to withdraw from globalisation but to shape it to its values of solidarity. Japan is leading the other spurned partners from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Mr Trump has pulled out of, in an effort to complete trade liberalisation without US participation.

What lessons can we draw from this contrast? First, take the theatrics of populism seriously. Populism paradoxically mixes machismo with an incessant focus on weakness — but blames weakness on elements that must be expelled, allowing the true representatives of the forgotten people a free hand.

Image result for Macron and Merkel

A revitalised Franco-German Partnership for a Strong EU–Macron and Merkel

Second, this worsens the problem populists promise to solve. It deepens existing divisions and paralyses democratic politics. For aspiring totalitarians that may be part of a plan. For others, it is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look no further than Britain for a nation that has acted on a mistaken belief that its strength has been sapped by the global liberal order (in the form of the EU), only to throw itself into true political disarray and indecision.

Third, the clash between populism and globalism is theatrical all right, but it is a theatre of the grotesque that expresses reality by transmogrifying it. Those who most try to project strength are those with the most domestic weakness to hide. Leaders of harmonious countries have no need to brag.

Fourth, it is in countries where US-style social and economic decay is most visible that the global liberal order is most contested: above all the UK, but also France and Italy. The rest of the west must redouble efforts to improve the social protections that have kept decay at bay for now.

Germany is of particular importance: its labour reforms 15 years ago have produced a worrying increase in inequality and precarious work. It must not repeat the US’s mistakes.

Finally, the global liberal order is more than the US. Its remaining supporters aim to carry on by forging the unity of purpose collectively that the US cannot even muster at home. A few decades ago that would have been unthinkable. Today, it may just be true that US isolationism will most harm the US itself.

The US President used to be thought of as the leader of the free world. America’s western friends are finding that they can no longer rely on it. But the truly transforming change is that they may find they no longer need to — and that the US needs the world more than the other way around.

martin.sandbu@ft.com

Promises and Pitfalls of the Belt and Road Initiative


July 20, 2017

Asia Pacific Bulletin
Number 388 | July 19, 2017
ANALYSIS

Promises and Pitfalls of the Belt and Road Initiative

By Bipul Chatterjee and Saurabh Kumar

China’s signature economic and foreign policy project – the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) – is the most ambitious global connectivity project ever launched by China or any country. The project aims to connect 65 Asian, African, and European countries comprising two-thirds of world’s population, through various sub-projects. The estimated investment cost for realizing this project is $4-8 trillion.

The goal of BRI is to connect China with Asia, Europe, and Africa through a network of railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines, fiber-optic lines, electrical grids and power plants, seaports and airports, logistics hubs, and free trade zones.

The promise of BRI

First, a promising aspect of this initiative is the potential reduction in transportation costs which would reduce the price of trade more broadly. At a time when countries are looking for specific measures to reduce trade costs and shying away from free trade agreements, a reduction in transportation costs as a substitute for trade deals can effectively widen the volume of international trade. A Bruegel study pointed out that a 10% reduction in railway and maritime costs can increase trade as much as 2%, while the effects of a reduction in tariffs would take a much longer time to be felt. An Asian Development Bank and Purdue University study estimated that improvements in transport networks as well as trade facilitation measures could increase the gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 % for India and 0.7 % for the South Asian region as a whole.

Second, BRI presents huge business opportunities for companies engaged in infrastructure development. A total of over $900 billion is expected to be invested in roads, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure as part of the project. This could immensely benefit countries suffering from inadequate infrastructure for their economic development.

Third, from the point of view of trade facilitation there are a number of factors that will create dynamic effects. China may accrue significant long-term trade benefits if it reduces tariffs through free trade zones, particularly on products from BRI countries. Beijing is also expected to reduce some of the non-tariff barriers hampering the prospects of foreign firms doing business in China including in those emerging areas such as internet banking and electronic commerce.

Potential Implications

Apart from the sheer number of participating countries, BRI appears to be both economic and strategic in nature. This became visible during the recently held Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The initiative came under scrutiny after European Union officials voiced apprehensions over transparency, labor, and environmental standards. This resulted in the EU’s refusal to endorse a trade statement tied to BRI. India’s non-participation due to sovereignty issues relating to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through part of Jammu and Kashmir also served as a serious dampener.

Even though BRI seeks to create trade infrastructure around India, it also encircles the country by creating a ring through land and sea routes passing through several countries with which India has sensitive relationships. However, India – with around 90% of its international trade through maritime routes and only 10% by rail and road – is comparatively less likely to see much benefit through enhanced connectivity under the initiative. Most of India’s maritime trade occurs from its western ports located in Arabian Sea and via land routes within the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal network.

In presenting BRI, China appears to be unaccommodating with respect to political and diplomatic issues as well as economic concerns. Trade facilitation alone cannot drive trade flow upward. There needs to be smart and secure management of trade routes so that end-to-end supply and value chain networks can be strengthened. In recent times, piracy has emerged as a major potential threat for railways and highways as well as maritime routes. BRI does not address these challenges in a meaningful way.

Although the project was launched around four years ago, it suffers from a lack of key information, operational strategy, terms of reference, and detailed work plan for the role of partner countries. This has eroded trust.

The Next Steps

While it is true that China’s economic and strategic interests are intertwined, it would have been beneficial for the BRI to be planned more holistically in order to give due consideration to the economic and political interests of other participating countries. For a large project like BRI, an international governance structure involving all the participating countries to institutionalize objectives and safeguard the interests of participants has to be established now with a particular emphasis on financial mechanism. The decision-making structure for the execution of BRI should be based on consensus.

“While it is true that China’s economic and strategic interests are intertwined, it would have been beneficial for the BRI to be planned more holistically in order to give due consideration to the economic and political interests of other participating countries.”

Several sub-projects of various Chinese companies to receive political and financial support from the Chinese government are being touted as part of this initiative but have nothing to do with it and should be de-coupled so that ambiguity can be cleared and only official BRI projects can be materialized. Participating countries should also get equal treatment in the financing of BRI, so that they can also reap the long-term benefits of the project, a step in this direction could be the revamping of the New Development Bank. A clear operational strategy for the entire project with an economic and political matrix should now be made to increase trust and transparency. This should clearly indicate relative as well as absolute potential losses and gains of participating countries. Active participation of global institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Arbitration, and International Court of Justice should be included for reliability as well as to resolve a potential dispute.

BRI should be executed in a selective manner with focus on economically viable sub-projects developing trade and economic corridors, for example a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor in the case of South Asia.

About the Authors

Bipul Chatterjee and Saurabh Kumar are Executive Director and Policy Analyst, respectively, at CUTS International. They can be contacted at bc@cuts.org and sbk@cuts.org.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact washington@eastwestcenter.org.

East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600

Moon and Trump and North Korea–Divergent Path between Diplomacy and Confrontation


July 20, 2017

Moon and Trump and North Korea–Divergent Path between Diplomacy and Confrontation

Image result for South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump and North Korea

Moon and Trump in The White House Lawn

by Jeffrey Robertson @at Yonsei University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

During a recent sit-down with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the Oval Office, a larger than normal media contingent surged forward, knocked over some furniture and invited rebuke from President Donald Trump. The media expected the perfect storm — a reserved and determined South Korean leader who wants dialogue with North Korea meets an impulsive and egoistical US leader who wants to sanction and pressure North Korea. Instead, the media received a lesson on how well-trained and skilful diplomats can avoid the perfect storm.

The incompatibility of Moon and Trump was recognised from an early stage. Commentators noted during the South Korean election that in ideological convictions, policy objectives and personalities, Moon and Trump appeared to be irrevocably incompatible.

Image result for South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea

 

And signals the beginning of diplomatic engagement with North Korea for Peace and Stability

Moon’s election position was to ultimately engage North Korea through increased interaction by civic organisations, re-opening tours to the South Korean-constructed and managed Mount Geumgang resort, re-opening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and even potentially holding an inter-Korean summit. Of particular concern to the US was Moon’s inconsistent position on the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system — Moon positioned himself between his core supporters and the swinging voters concerned about China’s retaliatory economic pressure.

Image result for War Monger Trump with North Korea

Tough Talking President Donald Trump prefers isolating and sanctioning North Korea

Trump’s position on North Korea could not be more different. Officially, it appears Trump has little interest in Korean Peninsula affairs. He lacks a strong East Asia advisory team and is yet to appoint an Ambassador to Seoul (although rumours suggest it will be Victor Cha) or an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs to the State Department. There have been no formal processes to elaborate a clear strategy. But from his first Tweet to his last, Trump has consistently called for isolating, sanctioning and pressuring North Korea.

The media sensed the potential for a clash of wills. Harold Nicolson, the renowned British diplomat and scholar, long ago warned against the risks of politicians playing diplomatic roles. Diplomats, he argued,  are not prone to emotional outbursts, zealotry or partisan short-term goals. By contrast, politicians are prone to ‘impulsive settlement’, ‘imprecision’ and the pursuit of ‘short-term victories’. Moon and Trump seemed destined to clash.

But seven hours after the two leaders completed their talks, the two sides released a Joint Statement. The significance of the statement lies not just in the fact that one was released, but also in the timing. In meetings with Japan and India joint statements were issued immediately, and with Vietnam and Saudi Arabia after several days. The seven hour delay was reportedly caused by either poor administration or (more likely) wrangling over wording.

Regardless of the delay, the media in both the United States and South Korea applauded the meeting. There was something to placate all sides. The South Korean media emphasised Trump’s acquiescence to Moon’s desire for a dialogue-first approach to North Korea and his openness to direct dialogue under the ‘right conditions’. The US media emphasised the renegotiation of the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and the renegotiation of burden sharing for the support of United States Forces in Korea. Through skilful diplomacy, the diplomats of South Korea and the United States established a difficult modus vivendi between two presidents with two very different positions.

But the diplomats of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department cannot rest on their laurels. On the issue of North Korea, Moon and Trump are on inherently divergent paths. As Moon settles in and consolidates his administration, these divergent paths will become clearer. In particular, if Moon is able to secure a stronger position after the April 2020 National Assembly elections, he will have the legislative capacity to push through a more progressive agenda.

For Trump, North Korea has been a welcome distraction, and South Korea represents an ideal target to make good on election promises to renegotiate trade deals and push allies to pay more for US support. But the sustainability of his approach is rapidly disintegrating, and the Korean Peninsula will soon require substantially more attention — not in sporadic Tweets but in the form of considered and responsible strategic policy.

The diplomatic modus vivendi is a cautious first step. On 4 July, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile — reported as a game-changing test that transforms the strategic calculus. President Trump pledged to react ‘very strongly’. On 6 July, South Korea’s President Moon delivered a key policy speech in Berlin, expressing his aim to engage North Korea, and a willingness to meet Kim Jong-Un ‘at any time, at any place’. There will be no slowdown for the diplomats smoothing over the Moon–Trump relationship.

  • Jeffrey Robertson is Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University and Assistant Professor at Yonsei University.

 

In the Post Lee KuanYew Era, can Singapore still walk tall on Global Stage?


July 19, 2017

In post-Lee Kuan Yew era, can Singapore still walk tall on global stage?

By  Bhavan Jaipragas

Singapore has a Lee Kuan Yew conundrum, and it has little to do with his house.

As the late independence leader’s three children this week continued their bitter public quarrel over his century-old bungalow, the Lion City’s leading diplomats were having a slug out of their own debating his foreign policy legacy.

The rift among the foreign ministry top guns was sparked when one of them publicly lamented in a July 1 op-ed that the respected statesman’s demise two years ago meant the city state no longer wielded an outsized influence in the global arena.

In a political career spanning six decades – including 31 years as premier – Lee’s counsel on geopolitics was sought by dozens of world leaders from Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) to Barack Obama.

Upon the patriarch’s death in March 2015, Obama led global platitudes, hailing him as a “true giant of history… and one of the great strategists of Asian affairs”.

Dean KIshore Mahbubani, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public  Policy

In the Straits Times commentary, Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean envoy to the United Nations (pic above), cautioned that without Lee’s diplomatic heft, Singapore now needed to “exercise discretion” in foreign policy. He suggested the Lion City could become like Qatar – now mired in a stand-off with its larger Gulf neighbours – if it imprudently stepped on the toes of major powers.

“We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era,” wrote Kishore, currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly … exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers,” wrote the former diplomat.

That stance did not sit well with Kishore’s peers in the highest echelons of the foreign ministry. On Facebook, Bilahari Kausikan, a fellow diplomatic grandee, lambasted him for his “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous views”.

A SLIGHT AT PM LEE?

“Independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates,” wrote the ambassador-at-large, who has an impressive following on social media. “I don’t think anyone respects a running dog.” Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, a former foreign minister, also took aim, describing Kishore’s writing as “questionable, intellectually”.

The nub of the blowback from the establishment was that Kishore’s views appeared to be a slight aimed at the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son – for lacking the diplomatic finesse of his father and predecessor Goh Chok Tong.

Responding to one commenter who defended Kishore, Bilahari said: “I disagree, it’s a thinly disguised attack on the PM”. Premier Lee, in power since 2004, has faced some domestic criticism over his foreign policy, but the fact that this time the dissent was from within – and at a time when the government is facing questions over its China policy – appeared to touch a raw nerve.

 

The erudite Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong

Local blogs have increasingly blamed the premier for the city state’s troubled relationship with Beijing in the last year.

Last August, Lee angered Chinese leaders after he said he backed arbitration as a way to peacefully resolve international disputes. Beijing took offence as the comments came soon after an arbitral ruling on the South China Sea dispute largely went against its favour.

As a small state, should Singapore hide when ‘elephants’ fight?

Some have also taken issue with Lee’s actions years earlier. In 2013, the premier sparked a mini controversy over light-hearted jibes he made at China’s expense during an after-dinner speech in Washington.

“Beijing residents joke that to get a free smoke all they have to do is open their windows,” Lee had said.

‘NO LINK TO SIBLING FEUD’

Kishore – facing an onslaught of rebuttals from within the establishment – did not back off from his original stance.

“I wrote this article as I believe that some of our senior officials have been imprudent in their public statements,” the 68-year-old wrote in a statement following the string of responses.

“As a result there have been some serious mishaps in our external relations,” he said in the statement posted on the Channel NewsAsia website. “The hard work by our founding fathers has been squandered. Our geopolitical space has shrunk.”

The diplomat said officials who viewed his commentary as an attack on the premier in the midst of his highly publicised family feud were mistaken. The article was published two days before the premier was to address parliament over abuse-of-power allegations made against him by his siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.

“This argument is flawed because my article was submitted to the ST [Straits Times] several weeks ago. It was the ST that chose to run it this weekend,” Kishore wrote.

Foreign policy observers said the open tiff put on full display internal debates within the country’s diplomatic complex, amid growing pressure to accommodate the rise of China as a superpower alongside the United States. Officials have long stressed that the Lion City would not waver from publicly supporting the international rule of law, even if that means angering bigger powers.

BALANCING ACT

“Singapore has a vested interest in standing up for a rules-based international order, as it is the framework that underpins the Lion City’s success,” said Hugo Brennan, an Asia-focused analyst with the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “But it will always be a balancing act between taking a principled stand and refraining from tickling the dragon’s tail,” he said.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a Southeast Asia politics researcher at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said the “Kishore-Bilahari kerfuffle should be viewed in a positive light as it illustrates that there is no danger of groupthink in Singapore’s foreign policy”.

Why the Lee Kuan Yew family feud is a metaphor for Singapore

The Straits Times, which published the commentary kick-starting the saga, on Friday said in an editorial that Premier Lee’s invitation to the G20 summit in Berlin this week illustrated the Lion City’s continued diplomatic prowess.

Image result for bilahari kausikan at the university of cambodia

Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan

https://publichouse.sg/role-small-states-bilaharis-criticism-kishore-wrong-misleading/

Despite not being a leader of a G20 nation, Premier Lee has been a fixture at the summits as a guest of the host nation. Bilahari meanwhile pointed to Lee’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on the sidelines of the summit to bolster his argument that the Lion City should stick to its foreign policy guns. “The moral of the story for us is keep calm: things are never as bad as they may seem,” he wrote in a Facebook post about the meeting. “Do not mistake noise – shouting – for substance. Psy-ops do not work if you keep calm.”

 

 

Trump and China: Implications for Southeast Asia


July 15, 2017

Trump and China: Implications for Southeast Asia

by Robert Sutter@www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for Trump and Xi

Before his inauguration, Chinese specialists judged that Trump, as a pragmatic businessman, could be ‘shaped’ to align with Chinese interests and would ultimately be easier to deal with than Clinton. President-elect Trump soon upended these sanguine expectations with a few gestures, comments and tweets. After accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump went on to question why the United States needed to support a ‘one China’ position and avoid improving contacts with Taiwan.

 

President Trump eventually was persuaded to endorse — at least in general terms — the traditional US view of the ‘one China’ policy. Though his informal summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in early April went well, Trump has put his Chinese counterpart on the defensive. He made clear how quickly he could take a wide range of surprise actions with serious negative consequences for China. Beijing was compelled to prepare for contingencies from a US president who values unpredictability and tension in achieving goals.

After the summit, the Trump government kept strong political pressure on China to use its economic leverage to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. While stoking widespread fears of conflict on the peninsula, President Trump stressed his personal respect for President Xi. He promised Beijing easier treatment in pending negotiations on the two countries’ massive trade imbalance and other economic issues.

China’s new uncertainty over the US President added to reasons for Beijing to avoid — at least for now — controversial expansions in the disputed South China Sea. How long this will last is a guessing game.

Image result for Trump and North Korea

Trump is preoccupied with North Korea

Further, the Trump administration’s preoccupation with North Korea and China reinforced a prevailing drift in US policy in Southeast Asia. Trump and his officials have announced the end of the Obama government’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy and repudiated its economic centerpiece — the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What exists of Trump’s Southeast Asia policy at best reflects belated and episodic attention based on a poorly staffed administration with no coherent strategic view. Only very recently have they begun to take steps to show interest in positive engagement with Southeast Asia.

On the South China Sea disputes, the Trump government has followed a cautious approach. It avoided for some time the periodic freedom of navigation exercises by US Navy ships targeted against Chinese claimed land features deemed illegal by an international tribunal in 2016. In Indonesia, Vice President Pence repeated the administration’s insistence on ‘fair trade’ with Indonesia, one of many Asian countries whose trade surplus with the United States has placed them under review by the new administration.

Human rights issues in Southeast Asia — ranging from authoritarian strongman rule in Cambodia and Communist dominance in Vietnam to the newly democratic Myanmar government’s controversial crackdown on the oppressed Rohingya community — have received much less attention from the Trump government than from previous administrations. Recent presidential invitations to Philippine and Thai leaders underline this new US pragmatism on human rights issues.

Southeast Asian officials are correct in complaining that they have few counterparts in the Trump government, particularly in the State and Defense departments, due to the administration’s remarkable slowness in nominating appointees. As they wait, those seeking a coherent and well-integrated US strategy toward Southeast Asia are likely to be disappointed. Barring an unanticipated crisis, the preoccupations of the Trump administration with other priorities seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

On key issues in Southeast Asia, there appears to be broad agreement within the Trump government — shared by congressional leaders — on the need to strengthen the US security position in Southeast Asia along with the rest of the Asia Pacific. President Trump’s proposed increase in defence spending will presumably support recent congressional legislation such as the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative and the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act.

But achieving a unified and sustained position on US economic and trade issues — with Southeast Asia or elsewhere — promises to be more difficult than consistency on security and foreign policy values. Key appointees have records very much at odds with one another. Some strongly identify with the president’s campaign rhetoric pledging to deal harshly with states that ‘treat the United States unfairly’ and ‘take jobs’ from US workers. Others stick to conservative Republican orthodoxy in supporting free trade. Policy is said to move back and forth between these two camps, and where Trump himself will come down in this debate is very unclear.

How much influence the United States will lose or gain in these uncertain surroundings remains to be seen. Much will depend on how well or how poorly China ‘fills the gap’ caused by drifting US policy. For now, it seems that US–China competition in Southeast Asia is more likely than not to remain a muddle for some time to come.

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at he Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’. 

 

Donald Trump Jr. and The Russian Connection


July 14, 2017– The Bastille Day

Donald Trump Jr. and The Russian Connection

by Jelani Cobb

http://www.newyorker.com

The tangled explanations offered for why Donald Trump, Jr., agreed to a meeting last June with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya have observers reciting once again the political truism that it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup—except when it’s actually the crime. It’s not clear whether any laws were broken with regard to that meeting, which was also attended by Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, and at which Trump, Jr., hoped to receive politically damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a person who he had been told had ties to the Kremlin. But plenty of other questions remain to be answered.

Image result for Donald Trump Jr and President Trump

When Trump, Jr., released his e-mails about that meeting—after he was told that the Times was going to publish their contents—President Trump said that his son is a “high-quality person,” and thanked him for his “transparency.” Given the President’s usual hyperbolic lexicon, “high-quality” sounds like faint praise, but “transparency” is precisely the issue. Setting aside the fact that the Trump team seemed fine with accepting sensitive information from a Russian source, it’s worth considering why Donald Trump, Jr., was chosen to be the recipient of it.

His blithe defense—that nothing about the meeting matters because it turned out that there was no intel to share—is only more damning. Veselnitskaya does not seem to have any formal connection to the Russian government, but, if she had, as Trump, Jr., apparently believed, then the overture should have been seen as a feint, a head-fake to gauge the level of sophistication of the Trump team, and possibly to compromise the son of a potential future President in order to extract concessions at a later date—the kinds of machinations that would’ve been instantly recognized during the Cold War.

Image result for Veselnitskaya

The implications of this level of ineptitude on Trump’s team have been alarming ever since Trumpism became a viable political force, but it also points to a lack of understanding of what Russia may be seeking to achieve with the Trump Presidency. In the fall of 2015, after Trump defended Putin against accusations of murdering journalists, and praised his leadership, it was easy to draw superficial comparisons between them: two image-conscious men hostile to independent institutions and fixated on restoring their respective nations to what they perceived as their former greatness. Since then, the differences between them have become more apparent. Russian resurrection is Putin’s raison d’être, an objective that explains his various military interventions.

It is an agenda that resonates deeply in a nation that remains both bitterly aware that it lost the Cold War and sensitive to the subsequent decline of its significance in world affairs. A few years ago, on a fellowship in Russia, I was discussing the work of Hunter S. Thompson with a student on a Moscow trolley, when an older man watching us began shouting angrily. The student translated his complaint: “There was a time when Americans knew better than to come to Russia and dare to speak English loudly in public.”

Trump, too, speaks the language of national grievance. He persuaded his followers that they had been suckered globally, and, in the most alarmingly messianic of his statements at the Republican National Convention, warned that he alone could save the nation. He has dissed long-standing allies, sabre-rattled our enemies, and made a show of wrangling job concessions out of American manufacturers—but none of that reflects a coherent world view beyond the will to power that has driven him since he appeared on the New York real-estate scene more than forty years ago.

The grimiest business practices might approve cementing a lucrative international deal with a corrupt foreign regime, but nations, at least in theory, operate on a broader set of principles. Were Trump’s nationalism anything more than self-serving theatrics, his associates would have rejected any suggestion of foreign assistance in the election on the principle that, hated or not, Hillary Clinton represented someone to whom they were bound by ties of citizenship.

Image result for Putin

The Games these Guys Play as the world watches

Putin seems to have recognized these contradictions and weaknesses from the outset. His interest in Trump’s candidacy appears driven not simply by transactional concerns, such as the removal of sanctions in exchange for reauthorizing the adoption of Russian orphans, or the prospect of a hands-off foreign policy that will ignore Russian human-rights violations. Trump may see himself as an American Putin, but Putin likely sees Trump as an American Boris Yeltsin—floundering in the complexities that surround him. Before Trump was pressured into raising the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election with Putin at last week’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, he had continued to downplay it. This was despite the fact that his own Justice Department is prosecuting Reality Leigh Winner, a twenty-five-year-old intelligence contractor, for leaking a National Security Agency report on attempts by Russian military intelligence to hack local election officials and voter-registration software.

All this points to problems that extend far beyond the June meeting to the nature of this Administration and its inability to understand the world that it is supposed to be leading. My colleague John Cassidy has pointed out that Trump, Jr., increasingly looks like a fall guy for a White House whose senior officials are increasingly compromised. When Richard Nixon saw that the resignations of his aides John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman had done nothing to diminish the inquiry into Watergate, he told Henry Kissinger, “I cut off two arms and then they went after the body.” Even if Trump, Jr., does take the fall, Trump, like Nixon, may soon realize that it will be insufficient to stop the Russia investigation.

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”