One year on, Trump style sows uncertainty
He inherited a recovering US economy, and the first 12 months could have been worse, but worsening trade tension with China is not a good start to a midterm election year
Donald Trump has ridden the luck of the economic cycle to claim credit for a high stock market and low unemployment. He inherited an economy in full recovery mode from a predecessor who inherited a global financial crisis. But after just one year in office his good fortune is not reflected in appraisals as he marks his first anniversary today.
There are not many who do not project abiding unease about his erratic, divisive, confrontational behaviour and unpresidential style, or even question afresh his fitness for office after he described some developing countries as “s***holes”.
Amid tweet-fuelled controversy over everything from climate change to race relations, and brinkmanship with North Korea, it is Trump’s flip-flopping personal management of the US relationship with China that ultimately causes the most jitters.
A phone call to Trump this week from President Xi Jinping reflected that, as Washington hawks talked of tough action over the trade deficit, including punitive tariffs and sanctions that could lead to a trade war.
Xi called on Trump to resume regular economic dialogue between the two nations, reinstated in July and then abruptly shelved by Washington because of lack of progress. Such twists and turns are typical of Trump’s mercurial unpredictability.
His first visit to China in November resulted in the signing of US$250 billion worth of commercial deals, with Trump hailing its success. Yet, since then, Washington has reverted to mulling punitive trade action and also blocked Chinese companies from buying US technology firms. Nonetheless, Xi struck a positive note, reminding Trump of their progress in maintaining a stable relationship last year.
But there remain obstacles. With few exceptions, key mid-level positions in the US foreign policy bureaucracy remain unfilled. This makes it difficult for China to communicate and raises a serious risk of misunderstanding. It cannot continue. Trump has said he is the only one who matters in setting foreign policy. Indeed, supporters may credit his hard line on North Korea with prompting the latest talks with the South.
With midterm congressional elections coming up this year, he may be tempted to continue playing the China card to his core constituency. But he needs to change his egocentric approach. Unpredictability and uncertainty are dangerous to orderly evolution of relations between an established world power and a rising one.
All that said, Trump’s first year could have been worse. There has been no war with North Korea, no unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. But tough talk and no action does not defuse hard issues. It simply kicks them down the road. This raises concern whether 2018 will be any better.