After years of high level vacancies and questions of coherence and direction, a coterie of China hawks are now firmly in control of US President Donald Trump’s Asia policy at a crucial juncture in his presidency.

Central to that consolidation was this month’s appointment of former Air Force General David Stilwell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the State Department’s top diplomat in the region.

Stilwell’s nomination comes as Trump prepares to meet this weekend with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Japan at the G20 Summit, which analysts believe may decide whether talks over the two sides’ trade war progress or collapse.

If the latter, Trump and Xi’s inability to reach an accord could set the stage for confrontations on various new fronts, including sea areas where Stilwell as a wealth of experience as a former commander of the US Air Forces’ 35th Fighter Wing based in Japan.

A respected security policy wonk and F-16 fighter pilot, Stilwell served as deputy director for political-military affairs for Asia at the Pentagon’s joint staff before his retirement from the armed forces in 2015 with the rank of brigadier general.

He also served as a defense attaché to China from 2011-13, giving him strategic insights into the country that has become the Trump administration’s biggest rival and threat. Stilwell is expected to implement a hawkish line towards Beijing, similar to the posture of Trump’s top trade and defense officials.

Then-Air Force Brigadier General David Stilwell (L) offers advice to a newly minted foreign area officer at a Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California. Photo: Courtesy US Army/Natela Cutter

The former pilot joins a top-flight Asia team that includes other well-known China hawks, including Mandarin-speaking Matthew Pottinger, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, and Randall Schriver, deputy secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

While many of Trump’s official appointments have raised eyebrows due to their lack of experience or potential conflicts of interest, Stilwell, a proficient Chinese speaker, is viewed by observers as a consummate professional.

“I expect he will fit well in the current administration as he is respected and known to key players in the Department of Defense and the staff at the National Security Council,” said Bradley Murg, assistant professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University.

“There’s also something of a strong view at present that US foreign policy towards the region requires stronger leadership in the State Department’s East Asia and the Pacific Bureau,” Murg added, “and that Stillwell’s appointment will significantly improve efficacy both in shaping policy in positive ways and in more effective achievement of the administration’s goals in the region.”

Analysts note that the Trump administration’s three most senior officials dedicated to Asia policy – Stilwell, Pottinger and Schriver – all sing from the same song sheet on the need to rebuff China’s perceived expansionism in Asia, including in the South China Sea and Pacific.

“With respect to some of the military developments, we continue to see that China seeks to erode US military advantages,” Schriver stated at a briefing last month.

“China’s leaders are leveraging their growing diplomatic, economic, as well as their military clout, to secure China’s status as a great power, and with the aim of becoming the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

Randall Schriver makes an address at the US Pentagon in a file photo. Photo: US Defense Department

This month the Trump administration released its first-ever “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” (IPSR), a Defense Department document that sets out Washington’s priorities in the region, including maintenance of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The report was published to coincide with then-acting, now-resigned Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s highly anticipated address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where he blasted China’s use of a “toolkit of coercion” to consolidate power over the region.

The report refers to China as a “revisionist power” – a marked contrast in language to statements made by the previous Barack Obama administration, though consistent with the Trump administration’s rhetoric – and “affirms the enduring US commitment to stability and prosperity in the region through the pursuit of preparedness, partnerships, and the promotion of a networked region.”

Stilwell is believed to have good personal relations with the incumbent governments in Japan and South Korea, two of America’s closest allies in Asia, although their traditional ties have come under heavy strain under the Trump presidency on issues ranging from trade to defense.

Analysts believe maintaining and bolstering these traditional allies will be pivotal in determining the success of the US’ new Indo-Pacific vision, as will building new partnerships.

Stilwell is also known to have close ties to Taiwan, and might push Washington to offer even stronger protection to Taipei as China grows increasingly assertive over its claim to the island nation it views as a renegade province.

Trump’s fast-emerging China containment strategy is also now reaching deeper into the Pacific. Earlier this year, Trump created a new directorship for Oceania & Indo-Pacific Security at the National Security Council.

No backing down – United States President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Facebook

The position will be held by Alexander Gray, formerly at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs and one of the architects of Trump’s Asia policy before his transition to power.

Days before Trump’s election victory in November 2016, Gray co-wrote an article for Foreign Policy with Peter Navarro, now the White House trade adviser, titled “Donald Trump’s Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific.”

“American allies and partners in the region have been disheartened by a foreign policy that has veered from feckless to mendacious,” they wrote, adding: “Trump will never again sacrifice the US economy on the altar of foreign policy by entering into bad trade deals.

“Trump will steadfastly pursue a strategy of peace through strength, an axiom of Ronald Reagan that was abandoned under the Obama administration,” they wrote.

Gray’s appointment signifies that Washington is taking China’s attempts to expand ties with Pacific nations as a strategic threat, especially amid reports that Beijing views certain island states as potential locales for military bases and expansion.

A US Defense Department paper published in December, entitled “Assessment on United States Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access”, stated that last year “China indicated interest in establishing [military] bases” in Vanuatu, a Pacific island, as well as in Cambodia.

In May, Trump hosted for the first time the presidents of Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia at the White House.

This followed visits to the various Pacific islands by Schriver and Patrick Murphy, the State Department’s then-principal deputy assistant for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the role Stilwell now holds.

Veteran US diplomat W Patrick Murphy is expected to soon be appointed as new ambassador to Cambodia. Photo: Twitter

(Murphy is expected to be soon named the new US ambassador to Cambodia.)

Trump’s Asia team will have exceptional power to exert influence because of the dysfunctional way Washington currently operates, analysts say.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon once described Pottinger as “one of the most significant people in the entire US government.”

In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pottinger (an ex-reporter at the newspaper) played an “important” role in persuading Trump to give Robert Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative, the central role in US-China trade negotiations.

Moreover, Schriver is known to have considerable sway over the Defense Department, which has been without a permanent secretary since James Mattis resigned in December.

Last week, Trump appointed a new acting defense secretary, the hawkish Mark Esper, an army veteran and former staff member of the Heritage Foundation think-tank. It is not clear yet if he will take the position permanently.

Acting US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a file photo. Image: Twitter

Esper recently told Reuters that China has been a personal priority as far back as the 1990s, including when he worked worked as an aide on Capitol Hill after more than a decade in the Army, where he served as Pacific war planner in the mid-1990’s.

“We may be a little bit late – we are late – coming to the recognition that we are in a strategic competition with China,” Esper said in an April interview. “The issue of China, competition with China, China’s capabilities, is not a new one to me …  I’ve watched this evolution for 20 years now.”

One area where Trump’s government has struggled to fill personnel positions and articulate a coherent voice is in Southeast Asia, which is perhaps not surprising as the three most senior officials in his Asia team are all Northeast Asia experts.

None of this is helped by the fact that Cambodia, now China’s most loyal ally in the region, has been without an American ambassador for months at a time speculation is running high Beijing is pursuing a naval facility in the country.

Traditional American allies Singapore and Thailand are also currently without ambassadors, while the role of deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia in the State Department’s East Asia and the Pacific Bureau is also vacant.

US relations with Southeast Asian states have thus been guided more by senior politicians, including Trump himself. Trump has visited Hanoi on numerous occasions, and even lobbied for it to be the site of his now flagging peace talks with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un in February.

US President Donald Trump holds a Vietnamese flag as Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) waves a US flag, Hanoi, February 27, 2019, Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

The Trump administration’s main policy in Southeast Asia appears to have given priority to building ties to Vietnam, the most vocal opponent in the region against China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

While China hawks say that good relations with Hanoi are necessary to work towards an Indo-Pacific strategy that has China’s containment at its core, some analysts believe the Trump administration only views Southeast Asian states in relation to how they relate to China.

In April, Schriver stated that “our defense relationship [with Vietnam] is strong and represents one of the strongest pillars in our multifaceted bilateral relationship,” while adding: “In short, for Vietnam, what we want is a strong, prosperous, independent Vietnam – nothing else.”

Yet he also referred to protecting countries in the Indo-Pacific from the “predations of strong countries,” which a report by the Department of Defense helpfully noted: “The predation to which Schriver referred is by China.”