Trump's East Asia foray a diplo­matic mine­field

People's Review - - OP-ED - BY M.R. JOSSE

NEW YORK, NY: Un­der­stand­ably, Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump's cur­rent 12-day, 5-na­tion East Asia jour­ney has re­ceived in­tense global at­ten­tion given that his geopo­lit­i­cal hop­scotch is the most sig­nif­i­cant of his pres­i­dency. At the time of writ­ing, he is in Ja­pan; there­after, he will visit South Korea and China be­fore at­tend­ing two re­gional sum­mits: in Viet­nam and the Philip­pines. (Ac­cord­ing to one me­dia re­port, he is skip­ping the lat­ter.)

NORTH KOREA

Yet, as he set out on his Asian odyssey, a New York Times re­port de­scribed it as one with an am­bi­tious agenda but with lit­tle to of­fer. In Danang, Viet­nam, the venue of an Asia Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (APEC) sum­mit, Trump may hold his sec­ond faceto-face meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. More im­por­tantly per­haps, there, Trump is re­port­edly ex­pected to un­veil a new Asian pol­icy cen­tred on the con­cept of a free and open "Indo-Pa­cific" which seems redo­lent of the once-much­heard of, but abortive anti-China al­liance of Ja­pan, Viet­nam, In­dia and Aus­tralia, of which more later. Ac­cord­ing to most an­a­lysts, North Korea - where he is NOT go­ing - will dom­i­nate the agenda for his maiden diplo­matic East Asian foray, a ver­i­ta­ble mine­field. In­deed, it re­quires no spe­cial per­spi­cac­ity to vi­su­alise that Py­ongyang's nu­clear/mis­sile am­bi­tions will be the cen­tral fo­cus of ev­ery bi­lat­eral meet­ing, eco­nomic dis­cus­sion and com­mer­cial dec­la­ra­tion con­nected with Trump's on-go­ing diplo­matic ex­pe­di­tion. No­tably, while Trump, in the global per­cep­tion, rep­re­sents a scan­dal-scarred and weak­ened Amer­i­can pres­i­dency, his voy­age takes place against the back­cloth of the re­cently em­pow­ered Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter, Shinzo Abe, and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping. His er­ratic be­hav­ior and the shadow of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions in Wash­ing­ton that con­tin­ues to dog his ad­min­is­tra­tion, and its shaky com­mit­ment to the re­gion, stand in sharp con­trast not only to Abe's and Xi's greatly en­hanced na­tional pro­file and pres­tige, of late, but also to the fact that, since Xi's el­e­va­tion in power, South Korea and China have come closer to­gether, even set­tling a per­sist­ing dis­pute over the roll­out of an Amer­i­can anti-mis­sile sys­tem in South Korea. Al­though a cred­i­ble overall as­sess­ment of Trump's diplo­matic trav­els and tra­vails in East Asia will only be pos­si­ble after he re­turns to Wash­ing­ton and the dust set­tles, it may be use­ful, in the in­ter­reg­num, to mull over some il­lu­mi­nat­ing ob­ser­va­tions made in a re­cent Wall Street Jour­nal ed­i­to­rial. Declar­ing that Trump's ' Pa­cific Strat­egy' is to "meet the chal­lenges of North Korea's nu­clear break­out and China's bid for re­gional hege­mony", WSJ's lead­ing ar­ti­cle does not shy away from iden­ti­fy­ing sev­eral key ob­sta­cles in that re­gard. These in­clude the fact that "South Kore­ans are nat­u­rally sen­si­tive about co­op­er­a­tion with Ja­pan given their colo­nial past. In­dia has doubts about Aus­tralia's re­li­a­bil­ity after Prime Min­is­ter Kevin Rudd pulled out of a joint ex­er­cise a decade ago. Asian coun­tries are in­creas­ingly re­liant on China as a trad­ing part­ner and in­vest­ment source and are ner­vous about of­fend­ing Bei­jing."

'INDO-PA­CIFIC'

WSJ also points out "the con­tra­dic­tion in Mr. Trump's with­drawal from the Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship pact, which cost the US a key build­ing block of a free and open Indo-Pa­cific." While WSJ seems to be gung-ho about the neb­u­lous con­cept of a US-backed "Indo-Pa­cific" - code for an anti-China coali­tion com­posed of Ja­pan, In­dia, Viet­nam and Aus­tralia - it does not at­tempt to ex­plain how the United States can be seen work­ing in con­cert to con­tain China, while at the same time seek­ing its ur­gent and close co­op­er­a­tion in deal­ing with the tricky North Korean is­sue, one that di­rectly im­pinges on Amer­i­can na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests! It ap­pears to ig­nore the re­al­ity of an ever so­lid­i­fy­ing Sino-Rus­sian strate­gic part­ner­ship, as also re­cent shifts in Rus­sia's South Asian di­plo­macy, which now in­cludes warm re­la­tions with Pak­istan. Rus­sia is, be­sides, not only a key Pa­cific power but one that has a more than ca­sual role to play in any fu­ture strat­egy in de­fus­ing the tick­ing North Korean nu­clear time-bomb. Apart from the im­ped­i­ments that WSJ has it­self iden­ti­fied, one must not be obliv­i­ous to the lessons of his­tory, par­tic­u­larly while mak­ing sweep­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of "re­gional hege­mony" against China. In the Pa­cific, for ex­am­ple, it is not China - but Ja­pan - that has waged war, seek­ing hege­mony, in­clud­ing against the US, Viet­nam, In­dia and Aus­tralia, among oth­ers! As all know, Pearl Har­bor and Hiroshima have no Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics! Fi­nally, where the spu­ri­ous, new­fan­gled "Indo-Pa­cific" con­cept is con­cerned, the In­dian Ocean, it will be salu­tary to note, washes the shores not only of In­dia but dozens of states along its rim, in­clud­ing those along the East African coast. If the afore­men­tioned 'quadri­lat­eral al­liance' against China did not take off decades ago, how cred­i­ble is it to as­sume that it will now suc­ceed when China's might and reach, in eco­nomic and mil­i­tary terms, has sky-rock­eted, mak­ing her the world's sec­ond su­per power? Ad­di­tion­ally, as WSJ it­self ac­knowl­edges, why would Asi­aPa­cific na­tions in­cur the wrath of a puis­sant China when there are far more sen­si­ble al­ter­na­tives, in­clud­ing that of pro­mot­ing eco­nomic pros­per­ity and peace by opt­ing for friendly, co­op­er­a­tive re­la­tions with Bei­jing? NEPAL AN­GLE Is there a Nepal an­gle, or corol­lary, to the above? There is - and it is this: If In­dia imag­ines that, rid­ing piggy-back on the shoul­ders of the United States, Ja­pan, Viet­nam and Aus­tralia, she can reap a boun­ti­ful har­vest of geostrate­gic good­ies, in­clud­ing get­ting a stran­gle­hold on Nepal, she is likely to be even more in­ter­ven­tion­ist than she has been in the past. Al­ready, as per a flurry of news re­ports, the In­dian am­bas­sador is in an elec­tion cam­paign mode, while the Nepali Congress is­sues tick­ets to politi­cians de­scribed as prog­eny of Kazi Lhendup Dorji of Sikkim, who fa­cil­i­tated its merger with In­dia. Will such a bla­tant in­ter­ven­tion­ist pol­icy work for the 'baad­shahs' of Delhi? Or, will it back­fire, fa­vor­ing the Left al­liance's elec­toral prospects? While only time will tell, it might be worth­while to mon­i­tor how Bei­jing seeks to safe­guard her in­ter­ests in such an en­vi­ron­ment.

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