By Rupakjyoti Borah —
The decision by the Trump administration to send the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group to the Korean peninsula marks a new phase in the United States’ involvement in the region. This comes on the heels of the meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. President Xi’s visit was overshadowed by the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian Air Force base in response to the Syrian armed forces’ alleged use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Thus the U.S. strike group deployment is intended to send a clear message to China and North Korea.
The China conundrum
Trump has been blowing hot and cold on China. “’We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he thundered during a campaign rally in Indiana last May. On many other occasions, both during the election campaign and after, Trump had been on the offensive against China alleging that it was indulging in unfair trade practices and militarizing the South China Sea. In addition, he also stirred controversy by answering a call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan after his election victory.
However, after coming to office, it seems that the tone and tenor of Trump’s policies and statements aimed at China has changed and he seems to have mellowed on Beijing. Although he had threatened to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, events on the Korean peninsula may have forced his hand when it comes to U.S.-China ties. While there is nothing surprising about North Korea conducting missile tests, what is concerning is that three of these missiles fell into Japanese territorial waters. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has already visited Japan and South Korean which was followed by a visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Japan, South Korea, and China. Meanwhile, the United States has also gone ahead with the installation of some elements of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system in South Korea – a move which was angered China.
Cozying up to Tokyo
Soon after becoming president, Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which included Japan. President Trump also alleged that Japan was indulging in “unfair practices on auto imports and exports” and had raised eyebrows by saying that Tokyo and Seoul should pay more for the security cover which Washington was currently providing them. He had also previously suggested that Japan might be “better off” with nuclear weapons.
Yet Trump seems to have developed a rapport with the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Abe became the second foreign dignitary that Trump hosted. Just before Trump took office, Japanese auto-giant Toyota announced that it would be investing $10 billion in the United States in the next five years. During his election campaign, Trump had criticized Toyota over shifting production of its Corolla model to Mexico from Canada. With regards to the Trump administration encouraging Tokyo to take more responsibility for its own security, Tokyo seems to have taken the cue. Japan announced that it would deploy its helicopter carrier, the JS Izumo, on a three-month mission which will take it through the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean, where it will take part in the Malabar exercises along with the United States and India later in July this year. In the aftermath of the U.S. missile strikes on Syria, Japan has come out in support of the U.S. action, giving Trump much needed diplomatic ammunition. For Tokyo too, the United States is critically important in dealing with the North Korean threat, especially as Japan’s constitution prevents it from developing offensive weapons capability.
What is in it for the Trump administration?
Trump may also be trying to avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap — the enhanced chances of conflict between an emerging power (China) and an established superpower (the United States). This may mean that the United States could also be much more accommodating to China than previously thought. During his visit to Beijing, Secretary of State Tillerson outlined the importance of “mutual respect” and “win-win cooperation”, which are incidentally catchphrases used by Chinese leaders. This would surely have been music to Beijing’s ears. In fact, Trump has already accepted President Xi’s invitation to make a state visit to China later this year.
Being an astute businessman, Trump knows that it is Asia which has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Though North Korea is a significant threat, Trump may try to goad Xi into keeping North Korea from trying anything overambitious (like developing missiles which can reach continental United States). Moreover, he has also threatened to go it alone on North Korea. Pyongyang has been growing more audacious of late — the estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport with the VX nerve agent, a banned chemical agent.
The deployment of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson and the accompanying strike group, is therefore designed to send a clear message to Pyongyang and also to Beijing. This message is accentuated by Trump’s decision to order missile strikes in Syria since he said that the chemical attack in Syria “crossed many, many lines”. The move will also reassure U.S. allies in the region like Japan and South Korea, who worried that Trump might reduce the U.S. presence in Asia. Through this latest action, Trump seems intent on killing many birds with the same stone and on laying down clear red-lines. Whether he succeeds in doing so, remains to be seen.
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. The views expressed are personal. His latest book is The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India? You can reach him via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @rupakj.