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Commentary: Who’s manning the Trump administration’s Asia policy shop?

The Trump administration’s first 100 days have passed, and there still isn’t a deputy to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in place. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, Channel NewsAsia's chief editor Jaime Ho says.

Commentary: Who’s manning the Trump administration’s Asia policy shop?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad)

SINGAPORE: It’s now May, the Trump administration’s first 100 days have passed, and there still isn’t a deputy to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in place. One name has been put up for nomination – John Sullivan – but he’s yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

In contrast, Lawrence Eagleburger, Clifton Wharton, Richard Armitage and Jim Steinberg – all recent Deputy Secretaries of State, were installed early in new US administrations, from George H W Bush in 1989 to Barack Obama in 2009. All but Armitage were at work by January of their new terms. Armitage took office in March.

The absence of a deputy to Tillerson is just the tip of the iceberg. All of the US’ partners will have concerns, but as we go down the ranks of the State Department, the implications for Asia become more real.

In all, positions that will need nomination and then confirmation by the US Senate have been estimated to number around 200. These include both posts in Washington plus ambassadorial positions. On Thursday (Apr 28), a group of Democratic lawmakers from the US Armed Services Committee wrote to the White House with their concerns, and Asia figured prominently.

It is distressing, they said, that “at a time when US forces and our allies in the Asia-Pacific are gravely threatened by North Korea, there are seven US ambassador positions with key treaty allies, partners and institutions in the region that remain vacant."

This is a message that many of the US' friends will very likely want to convey as well.


Tillerson may well be focused on cutting perceived bloat in the State Department’s ranks. From early reports that President Trump was considering as much as a 30 per cent cut to the department’s budget, to more recent suggestions that Tillerson may cull as many as 2,300 jobs, the writing is on the wall.

But there are consequences, both to the actual cuts as well as to the drift that will set in before the cuts are actually made.

Diplomacy is necessarily a resource-intensive endeavour. Personalities and relationships matter, and they matter a lot. And it’s not just about those that are formed between leaders and ministers. While leaders may provide the vision to a government’s foreign policy, it’s the ranks below these leaders that put the meat to visions and eventually implement, mould, translate or reassure. In the US administration then, it’s the level of officials from the levels of Assistant Secretary of State (some three rungs down from the Secretary) and the ambassadors and envoys who are the most important filters and interlocutors between the White House, State Department and foreign governments.

So where does Asia stand at this point?

The list of former Assistant Secretaries of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who oversee the State Department’s relations with the region, reads almost like a definitive who’s who of US foreign policy as a whole. The names, their histories and relationships have over time provided ballast, and reassurance for friends, allies and even foes, of a certain consistency and predictability.

From Richard Holbrooke to Christopher Hill, Winston Lord to Stanley Roth, and Paul Wolfowitz to Kurt Campbell; whether they were Republican or Democrat, dealing with US administrations on Asia policy was deeply grounded by known personalities who had deep experience, as well as the trust of the White House.

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew called Roth, who was Assistant Secretary under Madeleine Albright, “shrewd, constantly travelling and indefatigable”. And that’s precisely what’s needed for the countries whose relationships with the US fall under the direct responsibility of the Assistant Secretary – a constant face and voice with whom partners can correspond and confer.

No one is in that position now.

Nor is there anyone yet in the counterpart position in the Defence Department as well. And as House Democrats suggest in their letter, no Ambassador to any Asian country is in place. This at a time when the region is as unstable as it has been in recent years.

The vacancies also point to another concern – that the schism that was formed between the Trump campaign team and the larger Republican foreign policy establishment during his campaign may be un-mendable.

Unlike past transitions between administrations, this one has seen little (so far) of the traditional flow of Republicans and other experts, who waited out the eight years of the Obama administration, back into government. And there would have been many who might have served in a more “establishment” Republican team. It has been said that as many as 120 experts – many in Asian security – have come out to say that they will not join a Trump administration.

For those who may not have ruled themselves out, there may be little incentive to put themselves out for hiring now. All the better to take a wait-and-see approach, as to whether the Trump administration’s Asia policy coalesces into a more coherent whole.

All in, the paucity of Asian expertise flowing into the various national security agencies will lead to an unprecedented vacuum in thought leadership and experience in the administration.


For all governments looking into the United States, and considering their positions as they deal with any new administration, coherence and consistency is key.

There are, however, some who may argue that Trump’s unpredictability may be something that was needed to shake up the situation as it relates to North Korea. After all, Barack Obama’s much-vaunted ultra-rationality had not, in many eyes, led to any significant diminution of the threat from Kim Jong Un.

Have Trump’s tweets and belligerence changed the calculus in Pyongyang and Beijing? The jury may still be out, but what’s clear is that such unpredictability – intended or otherwise – raises the risks of mistakes and miscalculation.

And how best to mitigate such risks? A well-staffed, consistent and indefatigable diplomatic leadership.


For now, indications are that Trump will travel to the region for three key summits later this year: ASEAN and the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, and APEC in Vietnam.

For a president who, unlike many of his predecessors at this point in his presidency, has yet to undertake an overseas visit, this is a significant gesture of commitment.

He’s also spoken to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, invited him to the White House, and chatted over the weekend with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for a second time since his inauguration. No doubt these were positive developments, and a signal of at least some interest in maintaining an even keel in relations with the region. Vice-President Mike Pence’s visits to Korea, Japan and Indonesia last month would also have soothed nerves still uncertain of the Trump administration’s commitment to the Asia Pacific “rebalance”.

Will the president, however, have his Asia team fully in place by the time he visits in November? It’s unclear, based on current trajectories. Nonetheless, Asian governments will be hoping that the administration defies the odds, starts moving now on key appointments, and ensures that the personalities behind its policies are firmly in place by year’s end.

For now, the focus will be on North Korea. Speaking to Reuters last week, President Trump said: "There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. That said, he also offered a better option, saying: "We'd love to solve things diplomatically but it's very difficult."

Even more difficult if you don’t have the diplomats to do it with.

Source: CNA/dt


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