From China trade to North Korea and immigration, Trump’s poker player diplomacy leaves the US with many aces up its sleeve

Michael Chugani says the US president’s erratic negotiating style has come in for criticism but has proved to be one of his strengths

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 8:52pm

Are you among those who believe steely Xi Jinping will outlast mercurial Donald Trump in the US-China trade war? Do you nod when people say North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un outfoxed Trump at the Singapore summit? I don’t blame you. 

Everyone, from experts to my part-time domestic helper, is mocking Trump as a political toddler who can’t grasp how our globalised world works. Do you think he gives a darn about the pre-Trump globalised world? He has nothing but scorn for it.

Trump wants the world to work his way. Those who refuse are shown the highway. He backs his bravado with the world’s most powerful military, the biggest economy, the most advanced technology and the greatest wealth.

But his most potent power comes not from his big nuclear button but from his loyal supporters. His approval rating is a jaw-dropping 90 per cent among Republican voters. It takes one tweet for them to do his bidding.

People who conclude Kim won and Xi will win are using pre-Trump logic. Big mistake. Trump flushed that logic down the toilet the day he became president. His only logic is to say one thing, do something else, then undo it, and say something else.

Watch: By the numbers – the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore

China must play fair in acquiring foreign assets and technology

How do you win when you can’t size up or second-guess an enemy chameleon who can instantly morph from one being into another? That’s why Chinese leaders say they can’t figure out what trade deal he really wants. That’s why the reclusive Kim had to make three China trips to huddle with Xi.

If China doesn’t deliver, [Trump] will say to hell with Chinese jobs and pull ZTE’s life support plug

Sure, when Beijing runs out of tariff options, it can mobilise its patriotic nationals to boycott American products, as it did in past spats with Japan and South Korea. But one Trump tweet will mobilise his 50 million-plus Twitter followers to hit back with a boycott of Chinese goods.

Experts warn that China can make life even tougher for US companies on the mainland. Count on Trump to do likewise with Chinese firms in the US. His administration crippled China telecoms giant ZTE with punitive sanctions. He then cheekily said he will spare ZTE to save Chinese jobs as a favour to Xi.

It was a shrewd poker play that earned him an extra ace in the trade war and with North Korean denuclearisation. If China doesn’t deliver, he will say to hell with Chinese jobs and pull ZTE’s life support plug.

Watch: US hits Chinese telecoms giant ZTE with seven-year components ban

China and Trump’s tariffs: stop, or I’ll shoot myself too

Trump has replaced traditional diplomacy with poker plays. Kim is the idiot, not Trump, if he believes Trump stupidly suspended war games with South Korea in return for a vague denuclearisation pledge. The suspension is an extra Trump ace.

If Kim doesn’t deliver on verifiable denuclearisation, he will once again become Little Rocket Man facing fire and fury. The war games will restart on a grander scale. We had a recent sampling of Trump’s poker diplomacy when he tweeted North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat after the Singapore summit, then said it was still an extraordinary threat that required continued stiff sanctions.

POLITICO: How China acquires ‘the crown jewels’ of U.S. technology

I am no Trump apologist. I didn’t vote for him. His overt racism is repugnant. His mean-spirited tweets against political foes stain the presidency. But he is right in demanding a level playing field on trade.

America’s markets are far freer than China’s. Mainland companies are mostly free to do business in the US. But American firms must jump hoops and surrender technology to do business on the mainland. Other G7 countries have higher tariffs than the US.

Caging the children of illegal immigrants is abhorrent. The public uproar proves the compassion of Americans. But who among us has the moral authority to fault Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration? Australia won’t even allow illegal immigrants on its soil. China separates families of political prisoners. Our own officials racially labelled asylum seekers as fake refugees.

It is easy to hate Trump. But, if you look beyond the hate, you’ll see that many of his policies, from fair trade to secure borders, are well grounded.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host