On relations with China and North Korea, Trump has the makings of a statesman
While the White House has pulled out all the stops – eager to tout its accomplishments – in hyping the 100-day marker of Donald Trump’s presidency, which falls on Saturday, the president has characteristically declared it an “artificial barrier” and a ridiculous standard with little meaning in the scheme of things. Not so fast!
Ever since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, during which 15 major pieces of legislation were passed by Congress in his first 100 days – designed to shore up the broken-down financial system and infrastructure, curtail unemployment, provide relief for the urban needy and rural farmers, all while putting the country back on the path to growth and prosperity by minimising the lingering effects of the Great Depression – successive presidents have been measured against this unrealistic benchmark.
The cupboard is mostly bare for Trump domestically. There has been no major legislative achievement to his credit, given an ideologically divided Republican congressional majority and notwithstanding a raft of executive orders, among which torpedoing the Trans-Pacific Partnership was the most salient for Asia.
Foreign policy has been more of a mixed bag for the “America first” president, with some notable successes in reassuring allies and working with China.
Thus, in interacting with foreign leaders at the White House and at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump has demonstrated an intuitive grasp of statesmanship, his signature “art of the deal” persona on display. While British leader Theresa May may have been the first to deplane and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit the most dramatic – featuring an impromptu, round-table terrace huddle that was triggered by a new North Korean intermediate-range missile launch, interrupting a tranquil golfing weekend – the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) was undoubtedly the most consequential, not least owing to the serendipitous demonstration of US resolve to act when an internationally recognised norm has been crossed, that is, retaliation for the use of chemical weapons against civilians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Still, this first Sino-American summit in the Florida sunshine was neither overshadowed by the Syrian strike nor undercut by Trump’s signature unpredictability. Although shorter in duration than Abe’s golf weekend, the human bonding was unmistakable from the two leaders’ body language, amiably ambling and conversing on Mar-a-Lago’s front lawn, seemingly without a care in the world.
Nonetheless, there was serious business at hand. Trump took advantage of the locale to lay the groundwork for cooperation by underscoring that China’s alleged currency manipulation was no longer a top concern; indeed the People’s Bank of China has intervened repeatedly in recent months to prevent the renminbi from further weakening against the US dollar.
For its part, China has emphasised the desirability of “non-confrontation, non-conflict and mutual respect” while seizing “win-win opportunities” in Sino-American relations, for which the Korean peninsula is clearly a test case in accommodating differences in goals and policies, if not bringing them fully into sync.
For example, while China’s geopolitical concerns regarding a potential North Korean collapse followed by a Korean peninsula under South Korean control, with US military assets right on China’s doorstep, might keep Chinese leaders up at night, it need not with the right assurances from the US side. Nobody wants a second Korean war.
Similarly, China’s concern over THAAD’s deployment and reach extending to its strategic missile capability can be assuaged by military-to-military discussions.
The key question is whether Xi and Trump can play a credible “good cop, bad cop” routine, which will require deft diplomacy combining Chinese economic leverage with US military muscle. It will entail keeping Kim Jong-un off-balance while encouraging him to revisit his avowed goal of acquiring a nuclear strike capability against the US homeland – more a threat to, than a survival ploy for, his regime.
In this connection, Trump has subtly ratcheted up the pressure on the North, letting it be known in Pyongyang as well as Beijing that the military option is no longer off the table. Thus, a US task force is currently conducting naval exercises with Japanese and Korean naval vessels in the East Sea and Yellow Sea respectively, while the White House has taken the opportunity to hold an unprecedented briefing for all 100 US senators (followed by a similar briefing for House members on home turf) by the administration’s top national security officials in a show of political determination. (The last time military action was seriously contemplated was during the 1993-1994 plutonium reprocessing crisis at Yongbyon, successfully mediated by former president Jimmy Carter.)
Equally importantly, it will require keeping in mind the overriding policy objective, most clearly expressed by Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific Commander, who told a congressional committee this week that the US goal was to bring Kim Jong-un “to his senses, not to his knees”.
In sum, the US and China must find a way to coordinate strategy and work in tandem by drawing on the strengths of each in meeting the North Korean weapons-of-mass-destruction threat, thereby strengthening their common goal of enhancing peace and security in Northeast Asia.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant