It is not often one gets to see how the United States conducts its diplomacy from the White House, especially over the phone. Yet, the full transcripts of President Donald Trump’s conversation with the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte leaked to The Washington Post gave the world a unique glimpse.
More importantly, it created a ruckus in the international security community, as Trump, according to Business Insider, did the unthinkable: he revealed the locations of a number of US nuclear submarines. But the conversation was also insightful in other ways.
First, Trump appears to be loose with the facts. Without any empirical backing, he boasted that the nuclear and conventional military abilities of the US were “20 times bigger” than North Korea.
Second, by speaking candidly about the location of the two nuclear subs, Trump appears oblivious to security protocol yet again, even though he came to the White House accusing Hillary Clinton of inept handling of confidential emails.
Third, it was odd to read that the world’s most powerful man was seeking the advice of the Philippines about China, specifically about how well it could control or contain North Korea.
One only seeks the advice of another country when it is clear that it is in the know. But Manila has had little or no interaction with China on the matter.
As the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Duterte conceded to all his guests at the Asean leaders summit on April 29 that no one in the region could unseat China in the South China Sea. He asked why anyone should “continue to assume that Asean can stand up to Beijing”?
By making such a candid admission, Duterte has amplified the very weakness of his country and its membership in Asean.
Yet, against this background, Trump threw all caution to the wind and proceeded to talk to Duterte as if the advice of the latter was more important than the head of the Pacific Command or the US National Intelligence Council.
Fourth, Trump also seemed to regale in praising Duterte, inviting him to the White House without any serious forethought. Not surprisingly, even Duterte himself, on April 30, admitted that he wasn’t sure if he could accept the invitation since he was already committed to going to several other countries “including China and Russia”.
The speed at which Duterte played down Trump’s invitation suggested he wasn’t even sure if the US president was serious since it came in the context of their rather surreal discussion about China and North Korea. But Duterte diplomatically answered Trump that he would try to “speak to President Xi Jinping (習近平)” about the risks posed by North Korea.
In American parlance, it seems Trump just picked up the phone and “winged it”. It’s the pattern of a transactional presidency where almost anything goes – uncertainty is the “new normal”.
By adopting such a posture, the US slowly casts itself adrift internationally, since no one knows if it is feigning or not.
Having read the telephone transcript, one wonders if Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can now take Trump seriously, since he appears keen to talk to just about anyone about just about anything.
Similarly Xi must see Trump’s garrulous and unctuous behaviour as evidence that the US president is eager and easy to please.
Another conversation between Trump and Xi in April seems to underscore the point. Trump told the media several days after the Sino-US meeting that “after listening for 10 minutes [to Xi], I realised it’s not so easy” for China to influence North Korea. And just that fast, the US was ready to walk back its previous tough stance.
In other words, Trump can be easily led, or misled, on any issue, if Trump himself hasn’t become deluded by his constant claims of “fake news”, that is.
More importantly, instead of trying to persuade Duterte that North Korea was a clear and present danger, he ended up asking the Philippines president if China could exert pressure on North Korea.
But Abe, the first Asian leader to meet with Trump, told him in January that North Korea’s economy was 90 per cent dependent on Chinese trade, and therefore, in the eyes of Japan, always subservient to China.
But, as can be seen from the conversation between Trump and Duterte, the US president wasn’t sure if Abe was right about China. By bouncing the same issue off Duterte, Trump has sent a signal to Japan that the US doesn’t treat what Abe says as the proverbial “gold standard”. Perhaps US-Japan relations are not the baseline from which the White House will take its Asian strategy forward.
It seems clear that Trump will seek the view of all leaders, regardless of their expertise – from Duterte to Abe to Xi. And he will then confer with his military commanders.
It is an unorthodox decision-making style that will no doubt make world leaders a bit nervous every time Trump picks up the phone. ■
Phar Kim Beng is president of Echo Strategic Insight