Mattis Address Illustrates Gap between US capabilities, those of Asian Foes

US Defense Secretary James Mattis has spelled out in clear language what had been hinted at by US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Washington now regards the strategic military challenges of China and Russia as a greater threat to the US than Islamic State and other forms of Islamic extremism – or indeed any other currently perceived threat.

It is possible to view this as merely common sense given the professed aims of China to challenge the US and its allies in the western Pacific and the South China Sea. Clearly the technological supremacy that the US once enjoyed over all potential strategic rivals has been eroded with China’s rapid progress in both rocketry and application of information technology, and the revival of Russian investment in strategic arms.

However there appears to be a wide gulf between Donald Trump’s military strategy and his foreign policy. The latter could well negate the additions to US military power which are due to be the outcome of big increases in spending, starting this year with a US$824 billion armed-forces budget (which includes US$64 billion to fight IS, US$44 billion for Homeland Security and just US$27 billion for the State Department). It adds 20,000 soldiers to the total of troops and more ships and aircraft.

If the US is to half narrow the gap between its capabilities and those of the potential enemies, it will require a focus on technology to pull ahead in possible cyberwars and missile and anti-missile systems. China in particular aims to neutralize US naval power projection with a missile system which can cripple US carrier battle groups. China is known to have made significant advances and is also trying to adopt Russian technology to enhance its own.

This then should make for the kind of targeted spending on defense-related space technology such as pursued by the US after the shock Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, in 1957. Spending on conventional forces was restrained to help fund a program which landed Americans on the moon just 12 years later.

After years of being bogged down in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently against IS, confronting low-tech enemies who posed only marginal threats to US interests, a military change of emphasis towards rival powers China and Russia may be seen as a logical follow-up to President Barack Obama’s not entirely successful attempts to focus more on Asia and less on the Middle East. But it is not clear whether the actual budget addresses those more directly rather than enlarging US potential for involving itself in more disputes with low-tech enemies. Indeed, more troops, ships and planes may tend to encourage “send in the marines” attitudes in Washington while doing nothing for strategic dominance.

A reduced emphasis on Europe would be understandable too but for the rise in perception of a revived Russian threat to fellow members of NATO. For sure, Trump may have a strong case accusing the Europeans (France and Britain excepted) of doing little for their own defense. But that accusation is ill-received in Japan and South Korea given their levels of defense spending and Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to change the constitution to enlarge Japan’s military reach.

Trump’s defense push sits oddly with a foreign and trade policy which upsets the very allies the US now needs more than ever to contain China and Russia. In Asia in particular there is a sense that the US could now not care less about the region because the zeal to reduce trade deficits if necessary by threatening to tear up trade pacts – or cancelling them as in the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – now pushes US strategic interests into second place.

Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia which are natural informal allies of the US have been left wondering about whether to put any trust in the US. Under Obama, it shied away from confronting China’s aggression in the South China sea and under Trump has walked away from a key trade and investment pact.

Japan and Australia have been gamely pursuing their own closer cooperation in an effort to neutralize China, and are also in informal cooperation with India. But none of this matters if the US remains aloof, talking up its own power but ignoring the allies it needs more than ever.

North Korea and Iran: In the first case US belligerence has simply frightened South Korea, seeming to risk peace and the safety of Seoul to redeem threats not to allow the North to acquire weapons capable of hitting the US. It is particularly bizarre that McMaster seems especially willing to confront Pyongyang militarily at the same time as he sees China and Russia as the main strategic threats.

The current thaw in North-South relations over the winter Olympics in the South, where they will perform under a common flag, may well be brief. But Koreans know it is dangerous hubris to imagine that the North can be made to surrender its strategic weapons without a broader resolution of the issues of the peninsula.

Likewise, Washington’s obsession with Iran is driven by domestic political interests – the Israeli lobby, the oil lobby, the Christian right and memories of the 1979 Tehran hostage humiliation – without any regard to US strategic interests. Iran is wary, for good historical reasons, of Russia and has its own Indian Ocean interests, including good relations with India, and is not a natural ally of China. It is close to an Iraq liberated by the US from Saddam Hussein and should have common interests with the US in Afghanistan.

The threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal has infuriated Europe, even the usually submissive British, and made the US a growing non-entity. Meanwhile the main US ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, continues to use its oil money spread its extremist, medieval version of Islam around the world.

No amount of spending on troops, weapons and technology can replace the need for allies who trust you, and diplomacy driven by appreciation of large and long-term US interests not by tweets, loud-mouths in Congress and narrow ethnic interest groups. There is little indication, despite the credentials of McMaster, Mattis, et. al, that diplomacy will take to the fore, that Tillerson the oilman in charge, or that the State department that he heads will rise up the learning curve to take charge.