At the beginning of his first term, in 2009, President Obama coined himself “America’s first Pacific president,”[i] marking a shift in the nation’s foreign policy priorities. This became widely known as the ‘pivot to Asia’. Asian countries were promising the fastest economic growth and the most pressing security concerns, earning the attention of policymakers and U.S. citizens. In the end, the pivot received mixed reviews, with many saying it did not achieve its intended goals, and left other regions of the world in the lurch, such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe.[ii]
Just this week, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said that the pivot to Asia was officially over. She affirmed that the new administration will remain engaged in the region, particularly on matters such as trade and security, but what form it will take is still up for consideration. One thing is clear: the Trump administration wants to distance itself from Obama’s legacy in the region.[iii] The Trans-Pacific Partnership, notable for opening up trade relations with countries in the region other than China, was scrapped within the first week of the presidential transition. Now, many eyes in the policy world are on the new administration’s interactions and intentions for our relationship with China.
Despite its hesitance to continue former president Obama’s rebalance to the Asian Pacific, the new administration has shown immediate interest in the region, sending two of its cabinet members to visit Asia within the first one hundred days. In early February, Secretary of Defense Mattis took his first overseas trip to Asia, making stops in U.S. allied countries South Korea and Japan to discuss key topics such as the South China Sea and North Korean missile tests. However, while in Tokyo, Secretary Mattis made controversial remarks, declaring that the U.S. would defend Japan’s claim on the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea, to which China has laid its own claim. The Chinese responded severely to these remarks, advising the U.S. to, essentially, mind its own business. They followed up on this response by sailing a Chinese warship past the islands as a show of military strength.
In addition to Secretary Mattis’s remarks, the U.S. has recently taken hard stances on several security issues through force projection. In 2016, the Obama administration agreed to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea in the wake of security concerns from North Korea, including multiple test launches of missile systems. Despite China’s consistent opposition to the missile defense system’s placement, the first shipment of parts arrived in South Korea in early March.[iv] The Trump administration has shown no intention of removing the missile system to appease China, but rather has reaffirmed its placement and a resolve to deter North Korea in further developing and testing its arms. Additionally, in February, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to the South China Sea to permanently patrol and conduct “routine operations” in the contentious waters. Many of these operations are freedom of navigation operations, most of which seek to guarantee the South China Sea as an open maritime trade route.[v]
This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his turn visiting the region, slipping off quietly with only one reporter and only one press conference planned during his visit. He plans to stop in South Korea, Japan, and China.[vi] North Korea and the South China Sea are sure to dominate conversation during his visit. Already during his visit to South Korea, Secretary Tillerson has refused to negotiate with the North Korean government, stating that Trump administration might be forced to take preemptive action “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level. He even listed possible policy options should the U.S. need to take action, including vigorous sanctions, elevating missile defenses, intensifying cyber warfare, and even striking North Korea’s nuclear sites.[vii]
While the Asia pivot may be officially over, President Trump’s administration has clearly made Asia an early priority. We have yet to see China and the U.S. meet and collaborate on these security issues, leaving the U.S. to act unilaterally. However, there is still hope for positive China-U.S. relations during the Trump administration. As we continue to strengthen our defense stances and force projection in the region, we also seek to increase trade with China, and the relationship hangs in the balance.
China was excluded from TPP, and in the wake of its disintegration, it is possible that a new trade deal could emerge that would benefit and reframe trade in the region with China at the lead, setting the rules. Without a new trade agreement in the region, the US could lose out on valuable trade with two of the world’s most powerful economies, China and Japan. However, to create such an agreement, the US will support continued growth in the Chinese economy, leading to a possible increase in Chinese confidence in other areas, such as security.
Regarding security, there are many areas that invite significant Chinese-American cooperation. While there is little chance of the U.S. removing the recently placed defense precautions of THAAD or the USS Carl Vinson, joint exercises to build trust in the region could prevent potential conflict from occurring. China has already agreed to suspend all imports of coal from North Korea, a key part of the North Korean economy, to express its disapproval of the recent missile tests.[viii]
Given the remarks of both Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson, the Trump Administration seems willing to take hard line stances in security, using force projection and even military power to pursue US interests in the region. However, in order to improve relations with China, the US will need to also pursue increased trade, which may prove difficult given President Trump’s campaign promises of protectionist trade policies. Although the administration has been shy to reveal its policy strategy for Asia so far, we can hope that a clearer, more detailed strategy will be revealed in the wake of these visits.
This past weekend, I was one of the many Virginians who spent the majority of their Saturday afternoon outside, and didn’t complain once about the 60+ degree weather. A warm afternoon in February is nothing short of a treat. It was great to shed the heavy layers of winter, get some Vitamin D, and spend time away from artificial lighting, sans gloves and scarves and puffer coats.
But warm weather in February is not a win for everyone. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, residents watch the water line creep upwards, year after year. The Army Corps of Engineers projects relative sea level in Virginia could rise as much as six feet by the end of the century. Much of Norfolk’s infrastructure has been built on swamps and streams, and the land has been slowly sinking for thousands of years. But climate change is also affecting these sea levels.
Norfolk’s Deputy City Manager Ron Williams cites that by the year 2100, neighborhoods as much as a quarter mile inland could be inundated or need design changes to protect them from flooding. In recent years, Norfolk has installed road signs that act as “essentially huge vertical rulers” so that people can measure the depth of floodwater at low-lying intersections in the event of a flood.
For decades, environmental activists and environmental policy researchers have warned that human carbon emissions would cause land ice to melt, ocean water to expand, and sea levels to rise. Virginia is not alone in its concerns. All along the Atlantic shoreline, cities and ports are witnessing water creep up, inch by inch. New research using GPS and prehistoric data has shown that nearly the entire coast is affected, from Florida to Massachusetts and parts of Maine.
However, Virginia faces a unique situation - Norfolk and the larger Hampton Roads area are among the worst-hit parts of the United States. The region is second only to New Orleans, in terms of highest rates of sea level rise. It hosts a significant military presence, with ports and naval bases right on the Virginia shoreline. Hampton Roads has the second largest concentration of military capacity and activities in the United States, and is home to the world’s largest naval base – Naval Station Norfolk.
Forty-six percent of the local Hampton Roads economy is supported by Department of Defense spending. Should ports or military bases need to be relocated due to rising sea levels, Eastern Virginia is particularly at risk of severe economic downturn.
What are Virginian legislators and policymakers doing to address the creeping waterline? Virginia has established a revolving loan fund to help homeowners and businesses make changes to their properties in anticipation of sea-level rise - a step the program's advocates say no other state has taken. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation establishing the “Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund.” Senator Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore, sponsored the bill, SB282.
The legislation is similar to a program sponsored in Connecticut. However, Virginia’s loans differ from this legal precedent. Virginia will lend funds to citizens not just to deal with immediate flooding threats and damage, but to mitigate future flood damage. What advocates of the program may not know, however, is that the fund has virtually no money, and might not receive state funding for several more years.
Right here in Charlottesville, a team of University of Virginia faculty members are helping Virginia’s coastal communities rise to the challenge of encroaching seas. “As a state institution, we have a particular obligation to engage in these issues that are a threat locally, nationally and globally,” said Associate Architecture Professor Phoebe Crisman, who directs UVA’s Global Environments and Sustainability program. Crisman, Ellen Bassett, and Mark White lead the Charlottesville charge to address rising waters in Portsmouth and Norfolk.
As our local team of experts survey best practices from around the world, including the Netherlands, and introduce new methods of containing coastal flooding in the Norfolk region, we in Virginia should stop and think twice before celebrating another prematurely warm February afternoon.
by Kate Clark
During his campaign, President Donald Trump made more than one inflammatory remark about the United States’ involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), calling the organization “obsolete.” This came as quite the contrast to former President Obama’s statements and actions during his time in office, which included reassurances of the U.S.’s commitment to the organization, and to its allies.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ view on NATO is slightly more nebulous than the new President’s. During his hearing and confirmation, he affirmed his support for NATO, calling it “vital” to the interests of the U.S. and stating “if we didn’t have NATO today, we’d need to create it.” Additionally, Secretary Mattis served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, one of NATO’s two strategic commanders, from 2007 to 2009. However, recent news has reported that in his first official NATO meeting as Defense Secretary, Secretary Mattis demanded that member countries reach NATO’s 2% of GDP defense spending quota, or the US would “moderate its commitment to the alliance.”
This statement was not unfounded; it is true that the compliance of other nations to NATO standards is questionable. As of 2015, only 5 of NATO’s 28 member countries were meeting the defense-spending quota. The U.S. ranks first in defense spending at 3.6% of GDP, almost doubling the quota, and accounts for roughly 75% of NATO’s overall defense spending.
So, where does NATO stand in our interests and priorities today? We are in a post-Iraq War isolationist phase – evidenced by the isolationist, protectionist, “America first” Trump campaign. His election victory could be in no small part contributed to Americans’ prioritization of economic and military strength. The new President even applauded the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, addressing it as an explicit decision to put its national identity, autonomy, and self-interest ahead of international commitments.
With the dynamic security threats we could face from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other areas of the globe, America’s national security interests are not occurring in isolation. Our allies face many of the same issues, and perhaps the solutions lie in cooperation. Secretary Mattis has taken a more measured approach in response to national security threats. His stance strengthens NATO by ensuring compliance with its rules and regulations. With this action, we are not forsaking our commitment to our allies, but rather showing its importance and investing in its value for the future. Whether or not the argument of NATO being obsolete is true right now, General Mattis’ actions are preventing this from becoming a fact in the coming years.
How the new President will use NATO is still up for debate. Since 2014, NATO’s member countries have stood in solidarity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Trump’s close relationship with Russia could put this stance in jeopardy. Additionally, President Trump’s insistence on “America first” could breach the trust and mutual support that NATO has historically offered its members. With the rise of populist campaigns across Europe, NATO could see similar reactions from other members such as France, the Netherlands, and the UK. And when countries start to sacrifice the security of their NATO allies in favor of their own agendas, the alliance risks losing its credibility and its core purpose.
In truth, the future of NATO could hold any number of outcomes. The interactions between Secretary Mattis and President Trump will surely help determine which path the organization takes—whether it be restoring the alliance to its intended glory or driving it into the ground. Recently, Secretary Mattis remarked that President Trump has thrown his “full support” behind NATO. However, we have yet to see whether or not NATO will remain the same organization it was created to be in 1949.