- James Mattis, the US defence secretary is resigning from the Trump administration. His pending departure could create a vacuum of experience at the highest levels of US domestic and foreign policy.
- In his resignation letter on Thursday, Mattis chided President Donald Trump, saying the US should be “treating allies with respect,” and also be “clear eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”
- But it was his warning and his clarity about the growing great-power threat that Trump will be hoping the new secretary studies closely.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation from the Trump administration on Thursday, setting in motion the end of what has been a tumultuous tenure working with President Donald Trump.
In his resignation letter, Mattis told Trump, without saying his name, that the president has a “right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned” with his own.
Mattis’ resignation follows Wednesday’s controversial announcement of a plan to pull American troops out of Syria.
But it was the outgoing defence secretary’s warning about the shifting nature of great-power relations he hopes his successor will study closely.
Under Mattis’ watch, the administration has drawn an unambiguous line in the sand. Beginning with Russia and, historically, moving out of engagement with China, and into confrontation.
“I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with our own,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter.
“It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions – to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbours, America and our allies.”
Russia, under its President Vladimir Putin, has already shown its capacity and willingness to reach into the heart of US democracy.
The latest twin reports to front the Senate show in excruciating detail how even the smallest manipulation of social media platforms can meddle in US public life with just a single troll farm – the unit called the Internet Research Agency – tucked away somewhere in a Moscow warehouse.
Opaque and unsettling
While the Trump administration has appeared in an unflattering light amid what US policy expert believe is an unsettling relationship with Russia, Putin has been steadily picking at the edges of Crimea, presenting the greatest military threat to Ukraine in years.
But it is with China where Mattis and the administration have barged into a new period of strategic competition – and where the slide toward conflict is most acute.
That confrontation has been encouraged by the Trump administration itself, with the tearing down of so many aspects of the rules-based order that has governed global politics in the post-World War II era.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear eyed about malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter to Trump.
The Trump effect has isolated allies and invigorated adversaries, former Australian Prime Minister and noted sinologist Kevin Rudd said in November.
Speaking at the Hudson Institute in October, US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a landmark address signalling the US’s intent to challenge an increasingly assertive and belligerent China, directly accusing it of “meddling in America’s democracy.”
Pence accused China of stealing American intellectual property, eroding US military positions, and driving the US out of the Western Pacific.
It was only on Tuesday, when China’s President Xi Jinping, the country’s strongest autocratic leader since Mao Zedong, made a gloating speech marking China’s furious economic progress, with more daunting promises of “miracles that will impress the world.”
Delivered with slumped shoulders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi spoke for 90 minutes before touching momentarily on a vision for a new kind of Chinese expansion aimed at exporting its model of technocratic dictatorship to other like-minded nations.
“The past 40 years eloquently prove that China’s development provides a successful experience and offers a bright prospect to other developing countries, as they strive for modernisation,” Xi said, about 40 minutes into his speech.
This is exactly where China is now placed as it looks across the Pacific and into Central Asia to covertly or overtly use the One Belt One Road initiative to expand its industrial, technical, and digital prowess into developing neighbours that are vulnerable to the authoritarian siren song of, for example, surveillance techniques now being rolled out in the beleaguered western province of Xinjiang.
China’s vast data-collection platforms – WeChat alone has more than a billion users, and are harvesting ever-deeper data on behalf of the state – would be happy to do the same for other nations.
Earlier this week Danielle Cave, a senior analyst at the Australian Security Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, told Business Insider that developing nations that do not share the US’s aversion to unreliable actors like the embattled telecommunications giant Huawei, are ready and willing to marry into China’s cheap, buy-now-pay-later model of total autocratic technocracy.
The person Trump chooses to replace Mattis will need to see, with the same clarity that “Mad Dog” could, the chasm between the words of America’s strategic adversaries and their actions in this new, dangerous, fragmented – and increasingly lonely – global theatre.
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