Water Wars: A Mixed Week for Alliance Management

By Chris Mirasola / February 3, 2017 / Lawfareblog

James Mattis traveled to Japan and South Korea this week, his first overseas visits as Secretary of Defense. A Trump administration official said the trip was intended “for all of the people who were concerned during the campaign that then-candidate, now-president, Trump was skeptical of our alliances and was somehow going to retreat from our traditional leadership role in the region.” The North Korean nuclear threat was a focal point for Mattis’ consultations in Seoul and Tokyo.  

In a departure from some of President Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, Secretary Mattis did not ask Japan or South Korea to pay a larger share of expenses associated with hosting US forces. Nearly 80,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea and Japan. In talks with South Korean Defense Minister Han Minkoo, Mattis reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system. Mattis reiterated that THAAD is intended as a defensive measure against North Korea, though Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying still repeated Beijing’s “serious concern and firm opposition” to the system. In Tokyo, Mattis is expected to reaffirm the Obama administration’s 2014 pledge that the US-Japan Security Treaty covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Relations between China and Japan in the East China Sea have deteriorated significantly since 2012 when Japan nationalized the islands. President Trump will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Abe on February 10, one of the Trump administration’s first international summits. During a phone call this week with Abe, Trump “affirmed the ironclad U.S commitment to ensuring the security of Japan.”

President Trump’s phone call with the leader of another key Asian ally, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, was less reassuring. In what was meant to be an hour-long call, Trump strongly objected to an Obama administration commitment to accept approximately 1,250 refugees currently held in Australian detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru. Many of these refugees are from countries included in Trump’s executive order on immigration. Trump reportedly told Turnbull that “this is the worst deal ever,” though Turnbull reiterated that the United States was only committed to allowing each refugee through the normal vetting procedures. After 25 minutes, President Trump ended the call. The next day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reaffirmed that the refugees would be subject to “extreme vetting,” though a separate White House source reportedly said that Trump was still considering the deal. A day later, Senator John McCain called Australia’s Ambassador to the United States to express his “unwavering support for the US-Australia alliance.” Hous Speaker Paul Ryan similarly opined that Australia should not be worried about “its relationship with our new president, or with our country.”

In other news…

China

A senior Chinese military official made waves this week by writing that war with the US is no longer “just a slogan” and is becoming a “practical reality.” A leaked strategic document from the People’s Liberation Army (originally ussued in May 2016) similarly argued that the United States is China’s largest strategic threat. North Korea’s nuclear development came in at number two, conflict with Japan in the East China Sea at number three, and disputes in the South China Sea at number four. The report noted that China “cannot be optimistic” about its military power in the South China Sea given limits to its effective control of the region.

There were a number of developments in China’s military capacity this week. Maritime Executive reports on a number of technological improvements to China’s indigenous shipbuilding capacity, including an upgraded design for floating nuclear platforms and expanded submersible construction. Beijing’s second aircraft carrier, the first designed and built in-country, is also reported to be “taking shape,” although after nearly three years of construction a definite delivery date has not yet been released. Once completed, sources indicate that the aircraft carrier is likely to be based near the South China Sea. Chinese sources also report that Beijing is developing a new long-range air-to-air missile that one Air Force researcher alleged has a range of almost 250 miles. According to the China Daily, this missile would be capable of taking out early warning aircraft and aerial refueling aircraft. If the 250-mile range is correct, the missile would extend beyond that used by Western air forces. For an overview of Beijing’s missile arsenal, see this thorough overview from CSIS.

Finally, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, previously Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Washington, provides an overview of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy for our Chinese readers. On that topic, the South China Morning Post outlines how President Xi has amassed “unrivaled” power by taking on, or creating, multiple roles overseeing most areas of government. In particular, Xi has been particularly effective at consolidating control over the Chinese national security establishment.

United States

President Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, has received considerable attention over the past week after National Security Presidential Memorandum 2 made him a regular member of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee. Since then, reports have resurfaced concerning some of Bannon’s national security views. In a March 2016 interview, Bannon argued that “there’s no doubt” that the US would be “going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years.” He had also criticized China for “taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those.” We’ll see if, and how, these ideas might be challenged now that Rex Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State.

Finally, Pacific Fleet is assessing damage after an “engineering incident” wherein the guide-missile cruiser USS Antietam dumped a significant amount of oil into Tokyo Bay.

The Philippines

It was another whirlwind week in the Philippines as well. It started with a poll showing that 84% of Filipinos agreed that the government should uphold Manila’s rights in the South China Sea. Only 3% disagreed. Responding to the survey, Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella told reporters that President Rodrigo Duterte is asserting Philippine interests, “but in a different diplomatic style.” Abella also asserted that Manila’s “soft-landing” approach gave Duterte an advantage in bilateral talks with the Chinese and that the administration would “not giv[e] up our claims in the EEZ.” Read more…

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