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Donald Trump

Trump pulls punches with China by avoiding criticism over North Korea nuclear crisis in UN speech

US president’s address eschewed direct accusations against Beijing for problems including Korean peninsula nuclear crisis, bilateral trade and investment

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 6:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 6:28pm

In a speech to the United Nations defined by a threat to “totally destroy North Korea”, President Donald Trump struck a mixed tone on China.

Trump avoided naming Beijing as an enabler for what his administration considers to be the most pressing global security threat. The same went for other problems including bilateral trade and investment. Trump mentioned China specifically only to thank the country’s leaders for their cooperation on North Korea.

Instead, the president spent much of his time focusing on his policy of “principled realism”, which recognises the right of other countries to follow whatever governing principles they want, provided they align with the wishes of their populations and don’t threaten the security of other countries.

“Most of the speech should be welcomed by countries like China and Russia, which see sovereignty and non-interference as principles that they’re endorsing internationally,” Sarah Kreps, a peace and conflict studies professor at Cornell University, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

“He wasn’t judgmental about China’s domestic policies. There’s a recognition that they have common objectives,” added Kreps, who authored Coalitions of Convenience: United States Military Interventions after the Cold War, an Oxford University Press publication.

Donald Trump threatens ‘total destruction’ of North Korea over nuclear programme during UN address

Analysts said Trump’s speech may signal the beginning of a more coherent foreign policy compared to the ad hoc, situational approach he had taken since the presidential campaign and his first months in office.

In July alone, Trump went from berating China on trade, (“So much for China working with us”), to raving about “an excellent meeting” with China’s president Xi Jinping on trade and North Korea, and then back to excoriating China with the accusation that “they do NOTHING for us on North Korea”.

While not yet a “doctrine”, Trump’s foreign policy was made at least marginally clearer at the UN, according to Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World.

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Trump identified what he considers to be the greatest threats to the US – North Korea, Iran, and “radical Islamic terrorism”, in particular – and emphasised his government’s willingness to cooperate internationally and within the framework of the UN on these issues and others. The caveat being that a lack of cooperation would lead to the “destroy North Korea” path.

Climate change and other environmental issues, identified by his predecessor Barack Obama as a priority, weren’t mentioned. Refugees were brought up, but only as a justification for why the US shouldn’t have to receive any.

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“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region,” Trump said. “Out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial help to hosting countries in the region, and we support recent agreements of the G20 nations that will seek to host refugees as close to their home countries as possible.”

Trump’s foreign policy is “getting there”, Economy said in an interview with the Post. “We saw a clearer articulation of how he plans to pursue US foreign policy.”

This clarification of the philosophy behind Trump’s foreign policy bodes well for his summit meeting with Xi, planned for November, particularly the multiple references to the need for sovereignty, prosperity and independence as prerequisites for cooperation on issues Washington identifies as the most pressing.

“Trump, above all, seems to value power,” Kreps said. “China is a powerful stakeholder in many foreign policy issues and [Trump] values that and recognises that’s what he has to work with, and he seems to have respect for that.”

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“The Chinese will be very relieved that this is the president in most recent memory who is most reluctant to create constraints on countries that don’t observe minimal human rights protections,” David Lampton of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University said in an interview.

“What he’s saying is what countries do within their borders to their people is not a major concern of the United States and that we are going to be less interventionist and less like a global nanny on this set of issues.”

Still, the vow to destroy North Korea if international cooperation doesn’t subdue Pyongyang would rankle Xi, particularly because Beijing is trying to undo the expectation in Washington and other capitals that China’s leaders have that much control over their neighbour and traditional ally.

Analysts differed on the degree to which Trump’s speech will please China.

While Kreps called it a net positive, Economy called it “kind of a wash” because the focus on non-interference in domestic affairs would, in China’s view, be offset by comments about freedom, rule of law and a reference to the UN Human Rights Council.

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Referring to the “beloved” US Constitution, Trump said: “This timeless document has been the foundation of peace, prosperity and freedom for the Americans and for countless millions around the globe whose own countries have found inspiration in its respect for human nature, human dignity and the rule of law.”

Lampton said Trump’s comment that: “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply, and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict,” was aimed directly at China even if the president didn’t name the country.

“He’s basically saying China is trading with the world’s principal security problem,” Lampton said. “Chinese at the highest level are worried about this accusation that China’s not only not doing enough, but in effect is undermining” the effort to cut off North Korea.

Trump’s speech included other sources of friction that will likely become focal points when he meets Xi.

His contention that some countries have “gamed the system and broken the rules” hews closely to comments Trump directed at China from when he was a presidential candidate all the way up to his first summit with Xi in April.

Trump says he will visit China, Japan and South Korea in November

“And our great middle class, once the bedrock of American prosperity, was forgotten and left behind, but they are forgotten no more and they will never be forgotten again,” Trump continued, again touching on a problem for which he has previously blamed China explicitly.

Touching on “areas where there are a lot of tensions” isn’t unusual before a summit, Lindsey Ford, Director of Policy-Security Affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in an interview last week.

“Just like at Mar-a-Lago, they are going to find a way for China to give a little and for the US to give a little and for both sides to send their presents and look like they can claim some sort of success,” Ford said.