Trump is winning support against North Korea -- but losing the war for influence in Asia

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis have all toured Asia less than 100 days into President Donald Trump’s administration, but experts still say the US lacks any clear, coherent Asia strategy.

All 100 US Senators were invited to a briefing on North Korea at the White House on Wednesday, with a similar briefing in the works for the 453 members of the House.

Earlier this month, the topic of North Korea reportedly dominated the conversation between China’s President Xi Jinping and Trump.

But despite repeated threats of military force and attempts to force China’s hand against North Korea, the US hasn’t defined a clear strategy on North Korea, or anywhere in Asia.

A recent article in the Washington Post quoted high-level Japanese officials as urging the White House to not only clear up a short-term North Korea policy, but also a long-term policy for dealing with China, whose land grabs in the South China Sea originally drew ire from Trump and have long troubled their neighbours in the region.

“The Chinese are very happy this is off the radar for the moment,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Business Insider of the South China Sea.

“My view is there does need to be regional strategy and North Korea needs to be a part of that,” said Glaser, who noted that there is also an upside to the Trump administration’s apparently singular focus on North Korea.

“When you approach China, it is a good idea to have a set of priorities. If you throw five different issues at them and you don’t make clear which is your priority, you’re less likely to get any response,” said Glaser. “We’ve seen in the past when US comes at China with clear priority, especially when sanctions seem imminent, China gets more motivated to act.”

But while the Trump administration may be winning the battle on coercing China to act against North Korea, they may be losing the larger war for influence in the Pacific.

Despite Trump’s broad ambitions to reconfigure US-Asia relations, Glaser says she hasn’t heard of any policy reviews from the administration.

Requests from Pacific Command to the Pentagon about various freedom of navigation operations (or FONOPs) in the South China Sea “have not gone anywhere,” according to Glaser. The US uses FONOPs — where US Navy ships sale next to China’s land claims — to assert their presence, reassure US allies, and poke holes in the narrative that China is all powerful in the region.

“Some say [the requests are] sitting at Mattis’ desk, some people say National Security Council,” said Glaser. Either way, even within the military, Trump’s broad Asia strategy remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, faith in the US among its Pacific allies has visibly faded. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, a historically stalwart US ally, recently signalled just how far the balance of power has shifted.

“We cannot stop China from doing this thing,” Duterte said of China’s island-building in the South China Sea, where the Philippines territory has been threatened despite them winning a case against China’s land grab at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. “The Americans cannot even stop them from doing so.”

“What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t, we will all lose our military and policemen tomorrow. We are a destroyed nation. We cannot even assert a single sentence of the provision that we signed,” Duterte said, according to the Manilla Times.

So while Trump has shown he’s ready to flex with a powerful armada off Korea’s coast “We need to be able to deal with more than one issue at a time,” said Glaser.

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