Mon, Mar 06, 2017 - Page 6 News List

US-Asia change and continuity

By Parris Chang 張旭成

In many respects, US diplomacy toward Asia has gone as well as its allies could have hoped for. US President Donald Trump’s administration has reaffirmed several bedrock principles of its Asian strategy, reassured its close allies of its security commitments and demonstrated its resolve to deter North Korea’s nuclear threat.

On the campaign trail, candidate Trump frequently criticized Japan and South Korea on trade issues and accused these two allies of not paying enough for their military defense. He even suggested that indigenous nuclear capabilities might be the answer to their North Korea and China problems.

In the wake of his inauguration, Trump’s policy statements and his dispatch of US Defense Secretary James Mattis to South Korea and Japan indicate that he has walked back some of his campaign rhetoric.

On Jan. 30, for instance, Trump pledged to South Korean Prime Minister and Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn his “ironclad” commitment to the defense of South Korea within the full range of US capabilities.

In his visit to Seoul early last month, Mattis sought to reassure South Koreans of the US’ security commitment and remind them of its past sacrifices for their country. He reaffirmed the US policy to deploy an anti-missile system to intercept North Korea’s medium-range missiles. He also sternly warned Pyongyang that its use of nuclear weapons would be met with an “overwhelming” response.

In Japan, Mattis reiterated US defense commitments to Japanese and officials who had been unnerved by candidate Trump’s remarks that he might reduce US military commitments to Japan.

Mattis proclaimed that the US stood by the US-Japan mutual defense pact and its defense obligations include the disputed Senkaku Islands — known as the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in Taiwan — in the East China Sea, in response to which an irritated Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the statements expressed a Cold War mentality and put regional stability at risk.

Moreover, in a meeting with Japanese officials, Mattis described Japan as “a model of cost sharing” and praised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for increasing defense spending, belying candidate Trump’s criticism.

Trump had a cordial meeting with Abe at the White House on Feb. 10 and during a joint press conference, he thanked the Japanese people for hosting US troops.

The two leaders, accompanied by their spouses, vacationed together in Florida over that weekend, highly indicative of the special US-Japan relationship.

This is both surprising and remarkable; Trump showed the US public and the world that he is pragmatic, willing to learn and listen to his advisers and capable of adjusting and changing his positions on major policy issues.

How much has Trump’s position on Taiwan and China shifted? He once saw Taiwan as a bargaining chip in a broader negotiation with China on trade, security and other issues, but at US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s advice, he abandoned the idea. In fact, Tillerson played an important role in shaping the phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the connotations of the US’ “one China” policy.

Whereas Chinese propagandists and some international media outlets played up the Feb. 9 Trump-Xi call and misrepresented Trump’s adherence to the “one China” policy as a huge concession, their story was far from the truth.

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