Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: US Secretaries, peace in the Pacific, Duterte's wars, and more

Highlights from this week's Interpreter.

Photo: Getty images/Anadolu Agency
Photo: Getty images/Anadolu Agency
Published 11 Feb 2017 

By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.

Last week US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Japan and South Korea, but his presence was perhaps not quite as reassuring as hoped for. Robert E Kelly:

Trump’s taste for melodrama and conflict also undercuts US envoys such as Mattis. What kind of reassurance can Mattis offer if Trump will tweet out something later that challenges his statements? Indeed, Trump has already done this to Mattis on this trip. Simultaneous with Mattis’ voyage, Trump was declaring Japan a currency manipulator. 

So too is US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson likely to have a tough time calming nerves on the Asian circuit, argued Tim Johnston:

Asia and the world can cope with a new normal, but what if US foreign policy never  normalises, never regains an even keel? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be rational (even if the recent experience of Dick Cheney tells us to be cautious of oil industry alumni) but what if he is forced, in spite of his better instincts, to swerve in a new direction every time new inspiration strikes @realDonaldTrump at 3am?

Euan Graham wondered how the Western Pacific had stayed so peaceful for so long:

At a time when the prospect of US military adventurism in the South China Sea and other regional flashpoints is enjoying so much attention, it is important to consider the peculiar dynamics that account for the prolonged if somewhat edgy peace in the Western Pacific, in particular the very high bar on the use of armed force between states in place since the end of the Vietnam War.

The constraints that have deterred the application of US military force in the Western Pacific for over four decades will continue to apply in the face of China’s across-the-board military modernisation and ongoing improvements to North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities. But it is already clear that the Trump administration aims to inject deliberate uncertainty about US strategic intentions in Asia, and towards China especially.

The Interpreter continued to publish posts from last week’s Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders in International Security dialogue. First, Andrew Carr on the motivating force of fear:

Yet over the last decade, Australia’s strategic policy has been characterised by comfortable habits of thought and action ('let’s create new multilateral forums') and drift ('there’s no downside to closer cooperation with the US'). We’re not alone in this. South Korea has also stepped back from the global focus and energy that defined its behaviour just a few years ago. Maybe then, President Trump is the spur both countries need to get our thinking, in political, policy and academic circles moving again. New ideas are rarely better, but we will never know how good our established ideas are unless we have a range of different options to test against. Nor will we be able to persuade the public to accept the rising costs of our current approach unless they know the alternatives are worse.

Next, Danielle Chubb on the downfalls when framing North Korea solely as a risk to be mitigated:

Risk formulations have led to a strategic rationality that views any departure from the narrow range of behaviour deemed appropriate in international negotiations as a sign that Pyongyang is not to be trusted. Unreasonable demands, from Pyongyang – such as the 2015 proposal to suspend US-ROK military exercises in return for North Korea’s adherence to international law – are interpreted as extreme provocations, rather than as a potential diplomatic bargaining point. Rather than switching gears and dealing with North Korea 'as it is, not as we might wish it to be', negotiations break down.

Third, Andrew Kwon on what Australia could learn from South Korea:

The art of hosting US forces is unfamiliar to Australia; challenges were inevitable. But Australia could have been better prepared for that steep learning curve. Australia enjoys close relations with countries such as South Korea with long experience in the tricky elements of US alliance management. It should take advantage of their experience.

Finally, Soyoung Kwon on why North Korea is not yet ready for change from within:

Recent history suggests an external shock won't lead to regime change in North Korea and, given the current political situation is not conducive to the rise of an ascendant class of political reformers, policy recommendations should focus on encouraging structural and behavioural change within the regime.

Earlier this month German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Marcus Colla analysed the intricate political context of Merkel’s visit, her first since the coup attempt in July last year:

If Merkel believes she can employ soft power, diplomacy and compromise to reverse Erdogan’s tide, she is sadly mistaken. German-Turkish relations can only deteriorate before they improve.

Malcolm Cook wrote on Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s troubles on two fronts. First, drugs:

President Duterte has extended the deadline for the war on drugs from the end of December 2016 until the end of his presidential term in mid-2022 and continues to lambast anyone who criticises this, his signature policy. Yet with no clear suitable lead agency and rising opposition, it is far from clear when and how it can either start again or end successfully.

Second, the communists:

The unilateral ending of the peace process and return to all-out war against the NPA threatens to turn the militant left from an important base of support and legitimacy for Duterte into one of opposition. Key groups like Makabayan and even the Communist Party itself were already protesting President Duterte's warm embrace of the Marcos dynastyhis war on drugs, and the lack of progress on key economic promises like ending labour contractualisation.

Peter Hughes analysed how the business of discussing and implementing Australian immigration policy has shifted:

After three decades in the immigration business, I thought I understood how it worked, but now I am convinced I have lost the plot. In the past, governments that were concerned about security threats from individuals of particular nationalities might have quietly intensified scrutiny of visa applications and security screening in a carefully targeted way, based on intelligence.

Greg Earl wrote on Australia’s foreign direct investment, Asia’s economies in 2050, and Japan’s hopes for a trade deal with Trump post-TPP:

It is hard to see how Abe can get a better deal for Japan in a bilateral negotiation with the US than he got in the TPP when Trump has a golfer's simple scorecard for economic diplomacy: cutting the US trade deficit. With the national deficit at a four-year high and the deficit with Japan running at US$60 billion a year, it is hard to see Trump simply turning the TPP into some form of bilateral deal, as Abe seems to hope. 

Are Trump’s accusations of currency manipulation really that harmful? Stephen Grenville:

Where China is shifting its excess productive capacity by dumping the surplus on international markets, a response by countries adversely affected is legitimate. Japan and Germany can be issued with stern rebukes. Past trade deals such as NAFTA can be renegotiated without killing their benefit. Skirmishes like this, that would enable declarations of resounding victory, could give President Trump the deal-making satisfaction he seeks without putting world trade on a downward spiral similar to that of the 1930s.

Finally, John Edwards wrote on how the world economy might come unstuck under Trump:

To now weaken or remove the constraints on leverage and on speculating using the house book pretty well guarantees another global financial meltdown, sooner or later. Asked about the plans Trump said he planned to 'do a big number' on Dodd-Frank. 'The American dream is back,' he said, worryingly. On Friday he signed an executive order to begin removing regulatory constraints.

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