Why the Trump presidency may seem like a joke, but poses grave dangers for world peace
Philip Bowring says Donald Trump has unleashed global chaos with both words and deeds, and is making the US lose friends, but his seemingly ludicrous antics should not deter attention from the risks they pose
Oh for the day when one will not have to think about Donald Trump and the damage he is doing to the US, Asia and the world in general.
Last month, the US president was busy creating more chaos in the Middle East, by backing Saudi Arabia – the biggest single source of Islamic extremism – in the campaign against Qatar launched by its hot-headed young crown prince. Now North Korea is proving fertile ground for counterproductive policies.
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Trump’s threats against North Korea are dangerous – if only because they raise blood pressures on all sides and thus the danger of overreactions. But they are also futile, for the reason that has long been obvious – Kim Jong-un possesses a nuclear deterrent.
The neighbours have been living with this reality for some time, cities in South Korea being vulnerable to conventional weapons and those further south and in Japan to his missiles.
They do not like it but know that they can do nothing other than rely on the much greater deterrent force of the US. So it merely shows selfishness when the United States starts talking aggressively, because there is now the possibility that America might itself soon be within the reach of Pyongyang’s nuclear-tipped rockets.
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Knowing that military action is not an option, with which his own armed forces will concur, Trump then makes a big show of blaming China and suggesting that Beijing can solve the Korean problem.
For sure, China helps keep the Pyongyang regime alive. So does Russia. So do others if the price is right. Pyongyang has a history of inflicting dreadful hardships on its people to maintain its isolation and nuclear ambitions. Slashing trade with China is unlikely to change that. Given the strength of Korean nationalism on both sides of the demilitarised zone, and a history of Chinese as well as Japanese occupation, on the longer view a nuclear Korea is more a danger to China than the United States.
In any case, Trump now appears to make matters worse by threatening China on trade issues and with displays of power in the South China Sea.
These are wrong-headed. Trade issues must be kept separate if open trading is not to break down over localised political squabbles. Sure, the US has serious trade and investment-related grievances with China, but let them be dealt with in their own forums. As it is, Trump is both undermining open trade and damaging the US’ own relationship with South Korea, which it is supposed to be defending, by demanding a revision of the US-Korea trade treaty.
So what will the expert in “the art of the deal” do if Seoul proves unwilling to back off in the face of a unilateral rewriting of the trade deal? Remove US ground forces?
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
There are only two policy options for the US on North Korea. One is simply to ignore Pyongyang, confident that its leaders are not suicidal. Their nukes and missiles are to deter.
The other is to “do a Nixon”. Forget past rhetoric and recognise that what Pyongyang wants more than anything is a peace treaty and official recognition. The obstacles of pride and suspicion on both sides are huge – and the South itself is deeply divided on whether to talk to Kim. It will not be possible to persuade Kim to abandon his nukes but freezing development should be possible.
Nor does it make sense for the US to threaten a more forceful policy in the South China Sea unless China does more to rein in Pyongyang. The two situations are entirely different and not suitable for horse-trading. In the South China Sea case, the US is supposed to have two principles. One is to uphold freedom of navigation and prevent China from controlling the sea. It shares that goal with allies such as Japan. The other is, or should be, to support international judgments relating to the law of the sea. This includes the rights of the non-Chinese states who own 70 per cent of the coastline and most of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, and whose peoples have been sailing these seas for far longer than those from China. This makes the US their natural, if informal ally.
But confusion reigns over Washington’s policy objectives on these issues.
The confusion was showing before Trump but is now complete. US policy has lost friends all over Europe and east Asia, and is bringing a smile to the usually serious face of President Xi Jinping (習近平).
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The West, so far as there is one, is now seen to be led by the German chancellor, not the US president.
Likewise, bad things going on elsewhere – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for Hindu nativism against secularism, China’s new rounds of oppression of dissent, Britain’s Brexit death spiral – are overwhelmed by Trump’s inflammatory actions and inane comments.
It is instructive that almost the only country in the world where he enjoys a positive rating in opinion polls is the Philippines, itself in thrall to an expert in extra-judicial killings and cannibal rhetoric.
Trump is an easy target for humour as well as criticism. But laughing must not allow us to ignore the dangers he brings to a world which is mostly peaceful and still mostly growing more prosperous and longer-lived.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator