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Trump likely did Asia a favor by firing Bolton

Washington insiders see chance to devote more energy to China strategy

The departure of John Bolton from the post of U.S. national security adviser could lead to a more balanced Asia policy.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Asia is bracing for the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to sack his national security adviser, John Bolton. Many analysts see the departure of the administration's most hawkish foreign policy voice as a negative for Japan, since it could ease pressure on North Korea.

A closer look at Trump's White House, however, suggests the move could be a positive for Asia as a whole, given how it is likely to affect U.S. policy toward China.

When asked what Bolton's exit means for Asia, foreign policy and security experts and former officials in Washington said Trump is eager to generate visible and quick achievements on North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan to help his reelection bid in 2020.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been trying to conclude negotiations with North Korea, as well as Taliban militants in Afghanistan, out of loyalty to Trump. He has also been seeking direct talks with Iran. The top American diplomat, who reportedly harbors presidential ambitions himself, appears to be hewing to Trump's wishes to avoid being shown the door.

But Bolton -- whose distrust of North Korea, the Taliban and Iran is no secret -- opposed Pompeo's every move. "Bolton regarded the national security adviser as his last key post, and so he considered it better to block agreements with North Korea and Iran than tarnish his late career by concluding inadequate accords with them," said one former senior U.S. government official.

Bolton's and Pompeo's opposite objectives had political insiders convinced it was only "a matter of time" before the president jettisoned the security adviser, according to a source in Congress.

With Bolton out of the picture, the odds of Trump striking some kind of deal with North Korea through Pompeo have likely increased. This worries Japan, which fears an agreement that stops short of complete denuclearization by Pyongyang. Tokyo had been counting on Bolton to check Trump's impulses.

But this is only part of a much bigger regional picture. Bolton has long focused on how to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And his devotion to the cause seemed to come at the expense of other matters, including China strategy.

Sources say that Bolton, left, was so intent on denuclearizing North Korea and Iran that he lacked interest in China.   © Reuters

Bolton was so alarmed by Iran and North Korea continuing their nuclear development and Venezuelan autocrat regime that he -- when compared with China hawks in the administration -- had neither a sense of urgency about China nor an inclination to take a strong stand, according to former U.S. government officials and security experts who know him. As a result, Bolton was prone to clashing with the Defense Department and military leaders who consider China the top strategic priority.

An analyst in Washington said the removal of Bolton will "roll back forces fueling the crisis with Iran and make it easier for the U.S. government to focus energy on strategy toward China." A number of experts in the U.S. capital echoed this view.

To win votes, Trump is eager to halt the trade war with China sooner than later and ensure enormous Chinese purchases of agricultural and other products from the U.S.

Bolton's ouster will allow the U.S. to put more resources into the high-tech competition with China. And for Asian countries wary of Chinese military expansion, a sharper U.S. focus on broader Asian security is good news.

Ultimately, of course, another factor will determine whether Asia is better off with or without Bolton: the person Trump chooses to replace him.

Will the president pick someone with experience as well as a sense of balance?

Bolton is Trump's third national security adviser in as many years. And though there is no shortage of human resources in Washington, the list of known Trump loyalists with proven talent is limited.

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