Donald Trump takes aim at China over trade imbalance but hails progress on North Korea during UN address
US president’s speech to the General Assembly suggests further escalation in trade war with Beijing, while praise for Kim Jong-un cites ‘his courage’ on nuclear disarmament
US President Donald Trump used the occasion of his second address to the United Nations on Tuesday to amplify his anger about China’s trade and economic policies, accusing Beijing of “relentless product dumping” and other unfair practices.
Singling out China as a rogue nation in terms of trade while discussing his administration’s most pressing foreign policy issues at the 73rd annual UN General Assembly in New York, Trump’s move signals further escalation in the bilateral trade war that started in July, and his administration’s determination to change the course of the Sino-US relationship, analysts said.
“The UN has a special meaning in Chinese political discourse. UN membership and status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council symbolise China being accepted and embraced as a member of the global community of nation-states,” said Zhao Ma, an associate professor of Chinese history and culture at Washington University in St. Louis.
“To openly criticise China on China’s most valued global stage shows the Trump administration’s effort to put maximum pressure on China for future trade talks,” Zhao said.
Trump’s comments continue a downward spiral in US-China relations, reflected most recently by Beijing’s calling off a new round of high-level trade talks that was meant to convene in Washington this week. Several rounds of trade negotiations since May have failed to end the tariff war.
Concessions offered by China, including increased imports of US agricultural products and a timeline for easier market access for foreign banks and insurers, have not convinced Trump to pull back from his strategy of widening the scope of Chinese imports subject to punitive tariffs.
Trump is demanding significant changes not only to investment rules that force foreign companies operating in China to transfer proprietary technology to their local joint venture partners, but also to Beijing’s industrial policies.
“While the United States and many other nations played by the rules, these countries used government-run industrial planning and state-owned enterprises to rig the system in their favour,” Trump told the UN.
“The United States lost over three million manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter of all steel jobs, and 60,000 factories after China joined the [World Trade Organisation]. We will no longer tolerate such abuse. We will not allow our workers to be victimised, our companies to be cheated, and our wealth to be plundered and transferred.”
Relations have also been tested on other fronts in recent days. For example, Beijing summoned the American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, over the weekend to discuss sanctions the US State Department slapped on Chinese entities for buying Russian military equipment.
Watch: Trump slaps China with tariffs on US$200 billion worth of imports
“Trump re-emphasised the value and the importance of the trade war with China, demonstrating the unlikeliness for him to compromise,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Programme senior associate at the Stimson Centre, a Washington think tank.
“This hardline position on trade is a reflection of the conviction on the part of the US for the decoupling of the two economies, which has critical political and security implications.”
Trump’s comments contrasted sharply with his UN address last year, when his speech was defined by a threat to “totally destroy North Korea” and featured a mixed tone concerning China.
A year ago, Trump avoided naming Beijing as an enabler for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which his administration called the most pressing global security threat at the time, and refrained from attacking Beijing for the trade imbalance that he had highlighted since before he took office in January 2017.
Trump mentioned China specifically last year only to thank President Xi Jinping for his cooperation on North Korea.
In his address on Tuesday, Trump thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “for his courage and for the steps he has taken” to end the country’s nuclear weapons programme.
“We have engaged with North Korea to replace the spectre of conflict with a bold and new push for peace,” Trump said.
During Trump’s June summit meeting with Kim in Singapore, “we had highly productive conversations and meetings and we agreed that it was in the interests of both countries for North Korea to denuclearise.
“Since that meeting we have already seen a number of encouraging measures that few could have imagined only a short time ago.”
On Monday, Trump said that a second meeting with Kim is likely to take place “quite soon” and to follow a format similar to that in Singapore.
Trump also had some kind words for President Xi. While excoriating China for its industrial policies and trade and investment rules, Trump expressed his “affection” for Xi, using language similar to his kind words for Kim.
“I have great respect and affection for my friend President Xi, but I’ve made clear our trade imbalance is just not acceptable,” Trump said.
That tactic is a signature move of Trump’s in dealing with tough foreign policy issues, said Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.
Trump, Glaser said, “sought to insulate his relationship with leaders, including Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, in the belief that those personal ties may be helpful in addressing problems that arise”.
China aside, Trump lashed out at other targets including Iran, the International Criminal Court and globalisation in general, re-articulating his administration’s disregard for agreements that encumber US foreign policy decisions.
“America is governed by Americans,” Trump said. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.
“Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”
Watch: Western allies concerned after Trump pulls out of Iran deal
Trump also struck out at an arm of the UN itself, explaining that Washington withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council this year for “shielding egregious human rights abusers while bashing America and its many friends”. That comment was a reference to his administration’s dissatisfaction with what it considers to be the council’s bias against Israel.
Trump’s bond with Israel figured into his attack on Iran.
“Last month, we began re-imposing hard-hitting nuclear sanctions that had been lifted under the Iran deal,” Trump said, referring to an agreement his predecessor as president, Barack Obama, signed with Russia, the UK, France, China and Germany in 2015.
“Additional sanctions will resume November 5, and more will follow. … We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons. We cannot allow a regime that chants ‘Death to America’, and that threatens Israel with annihilation, to possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city on Earth,” Trump said.
“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues.”