Parading through their confirmation hearings, President-elect Trump’s nominees for the highest cabinet positions proved their minds somewhat independent of his. Which, of course, led to headlines like the one in Financial Times that said, “Clash of views in Trump cabinet sets stage for policy confusion.”
Differences aplenty there were but mostly in contradiction of Trump’s positions, not among the prospective cabinet members. Though Trump is widely seen as too friendly toward Russia, Gen. James Mattis, the nominee for defense secretary, said Russia was trying to break up NATO and isn’t going to be an ally. He also said that we need to enforce Obama’s nuclear weapons deal, not renegotiate it as Trump said he’d do. Mattis, as well as CIA director-nominee Cong. Mike Pompeo, said they wouldn’t waterboard terrorists even if the president ordered them to.
The most independent-minded seemed to be Rex Tillerson, nominee to be secretary of state. He, like Mattis, was properly skeptical about Russia. T-Rex refused — even when badgered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) — to say that Russian President Putin is a war criminal. Tillerson hedged on global warming however, saying we should be part of the global warming treaty rather than on the outside looking in.
Tillerson made the biggest misstep of the week and got the Chinese so riled up they threatened Trump with a very large war.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has insisted — correctly — that telling our adversaries what we intended to do was stupid. He repeatedly bashed China for currency manipulation and profiteering on U.S. trade. More recently Trump spoke with the newly elected president of Taiwan and said that the “One China” policy was negotiable, each action throwing China into a brief frenzy.
T-Rex stumbled badly on the Nine Dash line which circumscribes China’s claims of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. Speaking about China, he began well, saying that China’s construction of military bases on islands contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations was akin to Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula.
But he went on, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
China, of course, reacted with threats of war. Two Chinese government-controlled newspapers threatened a large-scale war if the U.S. tried to block China’s access to the islands.
Tillerson broke Trump’s rule against telling the adversary what we intended to do. What Tillerson proposed would, obviously, be an act of war. As CEO of Exxon, he couldn’t have made threats like that (not that any CEO could do anything remotely as serious) without checking first with his board of directors.
If Tillerson made that statement without clearing it first with Trump — and Generals Flynn and Mattis and Rep. Pompeo — he went far beyond what a secretary of state should ever do. T-Rex, if he made the statement in error, will be chastened in private conversation with Trump. If he intended to begin a battle over Trump’s control of foreign policy, T-Rex should be retired quickly from the position of secretary of state.
Tillerson’s statement wasn’t only improper: it was very unwise. At this moment in history we don’t have a vital national security interest in those South China Sea islands. That means we don’t have a sufficient reason to go to war over them. What Tillerson evidently doesn’t realize is that we not only lack the reason to do so, we lack the strategy and forces that would be required.
America’s vital national interests are expressed in freedom of the seas, the skies and our homeland and the land of our allies. They are equally present in space and cyberspace. When one of those interests is threatened or attacked, we must either deter or defeat the threat.
Though Trump hasn’t expressed a strategy on China in regard to anything other than trade and currency, he will have to realize sooner or later that our interest is in containing China. We need to have greater influence over Chinese foreign policy (such as reining in North Korea) and deterring China’s further expansion in the South China Sea beyond those islands and elsewhere in the Pacific.
The idea of a mutually profitable trade, though helpful, is far less important.
None of our five freedoms is being invaded by the Chinese construction and arming of the South China Sea islands, though they do threaten some of our allies’ (Japan’s and Taiwan’s).
Other nations in the region — Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia and a few others — are not allies, but they may someday be. If the Chinese begin to restrict airspace or sea trade across the South China Sea, Japan and Taiwan would suffer. They would look to us for leadership. But they haven’t yet.
Because we have an interest in the freedom of the South China Sea doesn’t mean we have a vital national security interest that the Chinese are invading. Thus, we have no justification to commit the act of war Tillerson said we should do. If that weren’t bad enough, there’s the question of strategy and forces.
We needn’t rehearse the facts of the diminution of America’s sea power over the last eight years to demonstrate that our navy isn’t ready or able to do what T-Rex proposed. His message to the Chinese, if it is repeated after he takes office, will be an empty threat worthy of Obama. It will do nothing more than provide China with a propaganda tool to incite domestic nationalism.
It is essential for Trump to replace the failed diplomacy of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry era with a secretary of state who understands that diplomacy unsupported by military power — the mailed fist inside the velvet glove — will fail. But if we have a secretary of state who rips off the velvet glove without thinking about what the mailed fist inside can do the result is very different, but equally failed, foreign policy.
Tillerson was correct in saying that Chinese seizure and construction on the South China Sea islands is comparable to the Russian seizure of the Crimea and parts of Ukraine. There, too, no vital U.S. national security interest was at stake and the decision to not go to war with Russia was proper.
China is doing plenty of things that do threaten our vital national security interests, such as failing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapon, and ballistic missile programs and China’s testing of anti-satellite weapons.
T-Rex should concentrate U.S. diplomacy on our vital national security interests and encourage our allies to join with us in ad-hoc alliances against Chinese aggression. But he shouldn’t make empty threats. Learning from Generals Mattis and Flynn, he can come to understand the difference between an American interest and a vital national security interest to our nation. He needs to think a lot harder and learn a lot more about how the levers of American power should move the world.