In his latest Sputnik radio interview Srdja Trifkovic assesses the significance of President Donald Trump’s five-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific region which lasted almost two weeks and ended with his departure from Manila on Tuesday afternoon, November 14.
The first question by the show’s presenter, defense analyst Miroslav Lazanski, concerned the significance of Trump’s brief meeting with Russia’s President Putin:
ST: The U.S. media spin was clear and simple: Putin has outfoxed Trump yet again. He has used his charm to make Trump accept his assurances that Russia was not involved in last year’s DNC hacking and election meddling, or at least to repeat Putin’s “sincere” denial of Moscow’s interference. Then, under intense pressure back home and attack from former intelligence chiefs, Trump had to express grudging agreement with the findings of those intelligence agencies which claimed otherwise. It is interesting, however, that—in the same breath—he pointed out that only three of the 17 intelligence agencies accepted the claim of Russia’s hacking.
In the long term it is more significant that, after an exceptionally cordial welcome in Beijing and an apparently successful visit—in the course of which Trump paid extraordinary compliments to Xi Jinping—he gave a speech in Da Nang in which he sharply criticized China. He did not single the country out by name, but it was clear who was the target of his attacks over dumping, currency manipulation and overvaluation, intellectual property theft, etc.—all of which was clearly aimed at China. And then, bafflingly, during the finale of the tour in Manila, Trump reverted to the words of praise for China and its leader, and expressions of hope for the future partnership. It is also very interesting that, wherever he went—even at the Asia-Pacific Summit—Trump pointedly used the term “Indo-Pacific Region,” or just Indo-Pacific, which is a novelty in the official geopolitical discourse of the United States.
Q: A bit of flirting with India?
ST: Not just that, but also a deliberate attempt to indicate that China will not be the central player in “the region.” If we broaden the meaning of “the region” to include India, the Indian Ocean, and the Indian Subcontinent as a whole on the one side; and then Indonesia all the way down to Australia as the barrier between the two; and the Pacific region in the east—then we have a whole new template, we have different dynamics and a different model of the balance of power. I believe this is the forewarning of a new American strategy: not only to engage India as a partner, but also to treat the whole of Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Australia as a bridge between those two regions, both of which will have an ever-increasing geopolitical importance. Ultimately this seems to be a means of neutralizing the significance of the extension of China’s influence in the South China Sea consequential upon the militarization of various disputed islands, and the resulting attempt [by Beijing] to present all other players with a fait accompli. Let us not forget: even though there may be differences and disputes between Malaysia and Singapore, South Korea and Japan and so on, ultimately all of them have their reasons to be uneasy about the prospect of China as the hegemon. And Vietnam is the first among them to have such misgivings.
Q: Do you think it was accidental that Da Nang was chosen as the venue of the summit, bearing in mind that the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War was fought there?
ST: That was Vietnam’s clear choice, and Trump himself referred to this fact at the opening of his address to the summit, when he mentioned the fights of yore and the remarkable transformation of the place. He was full of praise for his Vietnamese hosts . . . and delivered a strong speech in which, I repeat, China was not named, but there was no doubt who was his target. Vietnam, with its burgeoning population, and with its geostrategic elongated position along the western shore of the South China Sea, is a key country in the region . . .
Q: Which has a dispute with China over the Paracel Islands
ST: And the Philippines over the Spratlys. [President Rodrigo] Duterte, the host of the final meeting, has had very cordial relations with China over the past couple of years. More than that, under him the Philippines have moved from a classic American satellite to a position of equidistance between Beijing and Washington. Now, however, he seems to be veering back to the American camp . . .
Q: So what is the result of the Da Nang summit?
ST: The result is ambivalent. We are still not clear whether the Chinese will tighten the screws on North Korea… We need to draw the distinction between two facts. One key geopolitical imperative is that China wants to maintain a tampon zone between the Yalu River and the 38th parallel. The second is that this entity does not have to be ruled by the Kim dynasty. The Chinese will insist on the survival of North Korea as a state independent of South Korea and the United States, more or less under some form of neo-communist rule, but not necessarily under an unpredictable young man…
Q: I wouldn’t say that Kim is all that unpredictable. He has not made a single move that could be seen as radically unpredictable. His atomic bombs . . .
ST: His atomic bombs are an insurance policy against any regime-change scenario. Had Saddam, or Milosevic, or Qaddafy had them, they would not have ended so miserably. Yet his unpredictability on the domestic turf, his methods of dealing with potential or imagined enemies since there are no active ones, makes his regime rather . . . Let us not be too prone to identifying North Korea as a sovereign entity outside American control with North Korea under the continued Kim Jong-un rule.
Q: In Da Nang the American President has effectively announced that the sanctions against the Russian Federation may be lifted, but then—after the criticism and accusations back home—he has stepped back. What is going on?
ST: We are coming back to the theme which we have touched upon in one of our previous conversations: Trump wants one thing, the Deep State wants another thing, and when the Deep State exerts pressure on Trump, he caves in. He is aware that he cannot fight “the Swamp.” He came to Washington promising to dry it, as he put it, but that swamp has been swallowing him ever since. In Da Nang he tried to step out of it, but the following day he was pulled back . . .
A significant overlooked detail in this equation is Shinzo Abe’s victory in the Japanese general election [on October 22]. Abe now commands a two-thirds majority in the Diet, even though he is not personally popular. He is now able to change the constitution. He has announced his intention to change Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which was imposed by General Douglas MacArthur in 1946, under which Japan permanently gave up the use of force except in strictly defined self-defence. Japan has the “self-defence force,” yet they are the fourth-largest military spenders in the world. Let us not forget that Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to pay his respects at the [Yakusuni] Shinto Shrine, to bow before the fallen in the Second World War, which was a finger in the eye for the Chinese and the Koreans alike. . . . Not many people know that Abe’s grandfather was a senior Japanese Imperial official in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria in the 1930’s and 40’s. . . . The South Koreans have declared that they would not seek to develop nuclear weapons in response to the North korean challenge. Abe is much more ambivalent on this issue . . .
Another important theme is that, in the context of the “Indo-Asian Region” so often mentioned by Trump, a certain degree of latent tension between India and China is taken for granted. It does exist. They still have an unresolved border dispute in Assam, in the territories which the Chinese call “South Tibet.” Up to this day the border in the Himalayas is provisional and in some areas disputable. I have to point out that between the Indian and the Chinese philosophy of life, between the Hindu pantheism and the Chinese Confucian spirit, there is a deep cultural chasm. It is not so much that they “dislike” each other; it is more apt to say that they do not esentially understand each other.
An additional fact which worries the Indians is the Chinese project to bypass the Straits of Malacca and Singapore by constructing a road, a railway, and an oil and a gas pipeline across Burma/Myanmar down to the Indian Ocean, to the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal. That would bypass the pressure point of the Straits . . . Between China and India we have deep tensions which have been overlooked by those who have tended to lionize the BRICS group as a radically new geopolitical factor which will multipolarize the world. Between India and China, within BRICS, there is no true consensus on many key issues: on the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, on the “New Development Bank” for intra-group investment projects, etc. Under [Prime Minister] Modi, India is getting ever more closely involved with Washington—especially now that America’s umbilical cord to Islamabad seems to have been permanently severed…
During this long tour we have witnessed the ability of Trump to be disciplined, to stick to the script. He has refrained from making ad-hoc statements, there have been no gaffes, no material for what the U.S. media had earnestly hoped for, that he would somehow, by their standards, make a fool of himself. He has looked, sounded, and appeared eminently presidential.