August may come to be remembered as that momentous month when the foundations of Donald Trump’s domestic and international policy agenda began to wobble, fatally.
While his long-time personal lawyer and his former campaign manager were found guilty on a number of criminal charges just minutes apart in courtrooms in New York and Washington, the US’ two key antagonists in Asia delivered uncompromising messages to The Donald.
A negotiating team headed by Chinese commerce vice-minister Wang Shouwen let it be known that Beijing – far from blinking – was girding its loins and digging in for the long haul in its trade spat with the US.
Beijing was not interested in engaging in deficit reduction discussions with Washington, would not forfeit its right to comprehensively develop its economy and technology, would not be held accountable to extra-World Trade Organisation (WTO) standards, and would retaliate if a new round of Section 301 tariffs was imposed on its US-bound exports. And if Washington has issues with the WTO-infringing aspects of China’s alleged technology-transfer policies, it should point them out.
A few hours later, the vice-chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, Kim Yong-chol, ruled out the possibility that Pyongyang would unilaterally take the next steps towards denuclearisation.
Without a more forthcoming attitude from the US on adopting a peace declaration calling for an end to the Korean war, there would be no equivalent declaration from Pyongyang’s end providing a comprehensive inventory of its nuclear weapons programme. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was better off cooling his heels in Washington than making a futile fourth trip to Pyongyang.
Straightening out the imbalances in the US-China trading relationship and defanging North Korea’s ability to strike the American homeland are the aims of Trump’s signature Asia policy. During the first year of his presidency, he explicitly linked the two, noting that Beijing’s stance on and utilisation of leverage over North Korea would influence his trade-policy approach towards China.
The linkage worked to his advantage as President Xi Jinping, eager to cement a close working relationship with a vain and impulsive American president, delivered on round after round of UN sanctions that choked Pyongyang’s hard-currency lifelines and hastened Kim Jong-un’s advent at the negotiating table.
But following Trump’s unilateral resort to unprecedented trade-policy arms against China – ironically at about the same time that he was breaking bread with Kim in Singapore – his signature Asia policy goals are now at risk of unravelling under the twin weight of the intertwined China and North Korea pillars.
Each pillar was a signature Trump policy play. He joined China trade and North Korea at the hip – now each is dragging the other down.
With Xi set to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s founding on September 9 in Pyongyang, linkage and leverage appear to be coming full circle, leaving the US president’s policy aims potentially in tatters.
Trump’s predicament is a product of his own making. He has made three cardinal errors.
First, for all his (self-professed) vaunted negotiating skills, Trump does not seem to recognise when a good bargain is ready for the taking at the negotiating table. By late May, there was enough on the table for Trump to come away handily from his trade talks with China.
Washington was to enjoy ramped-up sales in the Chinese market, ensure Beijing’s patent laws were appropriately tweaked, obtain investment liberalisation (at a graduated pace) in additional Chinese sectors, and subject Chinese investment in the US to qualitatively more granular checks – all in exchange for setting aside America’s WTO-illegal tariff threat. Yet he held out for more.
Ultimately, when a truce is finally reached, he will have to settle for less – perhaps much less.
On the North Korea front, the symbolic end-of-war declaration was to be a modest down payment in terms of trust building in return for a very heavy set of asks from North Korea: a full accounting of its strategic programmes, verification protocols and the acceptance of international inspectors, and the surrender of an initial portion of its warheads early in the negotiating process.
From Washington’s perspective, Kim’s call for an end to hostile relations and the establishment of trust should have also been seen as a welcome break from Pyongyang’s history of aggressive economic compensatory demands. Yet even this was an inadequate bargain in the American president’s eyes.
Second, Trump has proven to be an untrustworthy interlocutor whose written – let alone oral – word cannot be relied upon. It is one thing to void one’s predecessors’ agreements; it is altogether another thing to renege on one’s own solemn commitments. On May 29, barely 10 days after blessing a US-China agreement to suspend tariffs in exchange for a wide range of trade, intellectual property rights (IPR) and investment-related deliverables from China, Trump reversed course and announced a 25 per cent tariff on US$50 billion of imported goods.
On June 12, Trump and Kim issued a historic declaration that paired the establishment of a new US-North Korea relationship with a commitment by Pyongyang to completely denuclearise. Two months later, an end-of-war declaration that could have made good on Washington’s promise to eliminate hostile intent and become an important token of that new relationship is to now follow – not be paired with – materially significant upfront and verified denuclearisation by Pyongyang.
In the Trumpian world view, Washington – as the supreme rule-maker in the international system – apparently gets to pick and choose which legal obligation or political commitment it wishes to abide by or transgress.
Finally, the China trade negotiation and the North Korea denuclearisation negotiation are both essentially one-way streets in Trump’s mental universe. Because American goodwill and gratitude has been used and abused over the past many decades, it is the adversary’s obligation to deliver the bulk of the hard compromises this time around, as per this view.
Once furnished, the US will deign to swallow the gains and both sides can live happily ever after. This mental map has no bearing with reality and is a grave misreading of the (limited) leverage that America enjoys. Having indulged this American president in the first 16 months of his tenure, China is determined to show what the obverse of indulgence could look like.
As for Kim, it is a brave or foolhardy leader who puts faith in Trumpian post-dated promises of cheerful times, given that the American president’s shadow is littered with the bones of interlocutors and associates who were no longer relevant to his next self-aggrandising project.
Trump’s late-afternoon tweet-storm on Wednesday was a belated, half-hearted recognition that the China-North Korea linkage, and leverage, works both ways. The sell-by date on his strategy of sowing confusion and uncertainty to gain leverage on both fronts expired this past summer by way of bad policy advice and equally short-sighted decision-making.
STATEMENT FROM THE WHITE HOUSE— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018
President Donald J. Trump feels strongly that North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese Government. At the same time, we also know that China is providing North Korea with...
Contrary to Trump’s impression, North Korea is currently not under “tremendous pressure from China [to toe the line against the US] because of the [administration’s] major trade disputes with the Chinese government”. That could change in the near future, though, if Beijing and Moscow partially release their foot off the UN sanctions pedal. China is under no obligation to hold out interminably on this front, and thereby yield the initiative and veto power to the most recalcitrant current protagonist on the Korean peninsula at this moment of profound opportunity.
The sooner Trump returns to the letter and spirit of the trade, investment and IPR-related May 18 joint statement with China, the earlier the pathway will be cleared to restoring a modicum of that leverage that he had earlier enjoyed – vis-à-vis both Pyongyang and Beijing. The road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing and cannot be constructed on an edifice of adversarial ties with China.
Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington