Opinion: Trump’s policy on Asia is a shambles

Nearly a hundred days into the administration of US President Donald Trump and we are still confronted by an empire in utter chaos, a whimpering superpower with no clear foreign policy direction.

While it has promised to “remain active and engaged in Asia” under “its own formulation”, so far what we mostly see is an unbearable policy dissonance that is chipping away at the United States’ credibility in the region.

Already struggling with historically low trust ratings, with the majority of Americans expressing their distrust in the president’s ability to make good on his promises, the “art-of-the-deal” Trump is under pressure to deliver.

On the domestic front, the White House has suffered successive legal setbacks vis-à-vis its controversial travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. Then came the dead-on-arrival American Affordable Care Act, also known as “Trumpcare”, which had little chance of survival amid vicious criticism by both Republicans and the entire Democratic bench in Congress.

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Meanwhile, US foreign policy, particularly in Asia, is still, to put it mildly, under construction, with no clear resolution in sight. Trump has yet to assemble an “Asia team”, which will oversee the day-to-day operations of the National Security Council, Pentagon and State Department in the region.

Both Defence Secretary James Mattis as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have struggled to get their preferred undersecretaries in place. In many cases, the issue seems to be more political rather than meritocratic. Mattis failed to install Mary Beth Long, a veteran Pentagon official, while Tillerson failed to install Elliott Abrams, a prominent neo-conservative wonk, as their undersecretaries. This was reportedly due to their earlier participation in the “Never Trump” campaign, featuring 150 leading Republican national security experts.

The latest victim of this bizarre political vendetta was Patrick Cronin, a leading Asia expert, who was forced to withdraw his selection as the incoming director of the Pentagon-funded Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The abrupt and surprising firing of Obama-era American ambassadors has also left a huge, though temporary, diplomatic vacuum in leading capitals across Asia. The steep cut, 28 per cent, in the State Department’s budget, which was opposed by Trump’s leading generals, is not going to help either.

As a result, Tillerson has been left disempowered, diffident and increasingly marginalised, a captain of a ghost ship with seemingly no direct influence on shaping US foreign policy.

The upshot is a gnawing competence gap in the American foreign policy establishment, undermining the ability of Washington to craft, never mind effectively implement, a coherent and nuanced policy in Asia.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump offered a vision of a militarily-strong…

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