Can Trump deal with N.Korea and China?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The stakes ob­vi­ously are much higher re­gard­ing North Korea, with US-South Korean joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises this week ag­gra­vat­ing al­ready-high ten­sions. If the US and North Korea do get into a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion, there is a real risk that nu­clear weapons will be used. Even a con­ven­tional war would likely be cat­a­strophic.

Trade is rel­e­vant to the North Korean nu­clear chal­lenge, be­cause strict eco­nomic sanc­tions by China – po­ten­tially in­clud­ing a halt in oil sup­plies – are prob­a­bly the world’s best bet for stop­ping the North’s nu­clear pro­gramme (in ex­change for cer­tain se­cu­rity guar­an­tees from the US). Trump may well un­der­stand this. But he ap­par­ently be­lieves that he can use US trade with China as a bar­gain­ing chip to se­cure its help in deal­ing with North Korea. This is the wrong ap­proach.

Trump’s ap­proach to gov­er­nance – char­ac­terised by an un­prece­dented lack of in­ter­est in rules, prin­ci­ples, al­liances, and in­sti­tu­tions – is some­times de­scribed as trans­ac­tional. Jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of that ap­proach typ­i­cally fo­cus on Trump’s busi­ness back­ground, which sup­pos­edly makes him the deal­maker the US needs. In fact, Trump’s be­hav­iour re­flects a lack of re­gard for some of the most ele­men­tary re­quire­ments for suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion.

A skill­ful ne­go­tia­tor knows that one must look at the game from the other player’s view­point, in or­der to de­ter­mine which out­comes they may view as favourable, and find com­mon ground. More­over, con­clud­ing a deal re­quires cred­i­bil­ity with re­spect to both in­duce­ments and pun­ish­ments.

Trump’s at­tempts at bar­gain­ing with China re­flect a fail­ure on both fronts. From China’s per­spec­tive, a nu­cle­ar­armed North Korea is un­de­sir­able, but still less prob­lem­atic than the po­ten­tial break­down of or­der in the coun­try, which could pro­duce an in­flux of refugees into China and bring Amer­i­can troops closer to China’s bor­der. Against this back­ground, er­ratic US trade threats are not the way to con­vince China to ap­ply pres­sure on its trou­ble­some ally.

In­stead, the US, along with South Korea, should prom­ise that, if Chi­nese-backed sanc­tions did cause the North Korean regime to col­lapse, China would not be con­fronted ei­ther by US troops north of the 38th par­al­lel or by a uni­fied, nu­cle­ar­armed Korean Penin­sula. In the shorter term, the US and South Korea should of­fer to pause the de­ploy­ment of Amer­ica’s Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense (THAAD) sys­tem in South Korea, if China adopts and en­forces ad­di­tional sanc­tions on the North.

But cred­i­bil­ity on the part of the US pres­i­dent is needed to make this – or any – strat­egy work. Un­for­tu­nately, Trump’s state­ments – whether about the past, the present, or the fu­ture – are of­ten out of touch with re­al­ity. On the North Korean nu­clear is­sue alone, he has shown a re­mark­able lack of con­sis­tency, cred­i­bil­ity, and fol­low-through.

In Jan­uary, Trump tweeted that North Korea’s de­vel­op­ment of a nu­clear weapon ca­pa­ble of reach­ing parts of the US “won’t hap­pen!” By July, the North was test­ing an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the US, and it is be­lieved that the coun­try al­ready pos­sesses the ca­pa­bil­ity to pro­duce a minia­turised, ICBM-ready nu­clear pay­load.

Ear­lier this month, when Trump said that any North Korean threat “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un re­sponded by threat­en­ing to at­tack Guam. In­stead of de­liv­er­ing fire and fury, Trump re­it­er­ated that if Kim “ut­ters one threat in a form of an overt threat … he will truly re­gret it. And he will re­gret it fast.” These state­ments clearly are nei­ther cred­i­ble nor ac­cu­rate.

Trump has dis­played sim­i­lar caprice and lack of fol­lowthrough with re­spect to China. In De­cem­ber, then-Pres­i­den­t­elect Trump chal­lenged the “One China” pol­icy that his pre­de­ces­sors, Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike, had re­spected. He ei­ther didn’t know that China is more will­ing to go to war over Tai­wan than the US is, or was dis­play­ing his char­ac­ter­is­tic short­sight­ed­ness. In any case, on Fe­bru­ary 9, he had to re­verse his po­si­tion, los­ing face just a cou­ple of weeks after his inau­gu­ra­tion and set­ting a bad prece­dent for fu­ture deal-mak­ing with the strate­gi­cally savvy Chi­nese.

Like­wise, Trump backed down on his oft-re­peated prom­ise that he would name China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor as soon as he took of­fice. It was a fool­ish threat all along – not least be­cause, if Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties had stopped in­ter­ven­ing in the for­eign-ex­change mar­ket in 2015-2016, the re­sult would have been a weaker ren­minbi, not a stronger one.

By now, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, like most world lead­ers, has learned to dis­count Trump’s warn­ings. Trump’s state­ments sug­gest­ing a lack of loy­alty to Amer­ica’s al­lies – he took months to af­firm his sup­port for Ar­ti­cle 5 of the North At­lantic Treaty, NATO’s bedrock col­lec­tive-de­fense clause – have left even close US part­ners hes­i­tant to make deals with his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The White House is still pur­su­ing ag­gres­sive trade-pol­icy mea­sures against China, only some of which have any merit. (While the ef­fort to en­force in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights has some ba­sis in re­al­ity, the at­tempt to block steel im­ports us­ing a na­tional-se­cu­rity ex­emp­tion is far­ci­cal.)

But these ini­tia­tives will not do much, if any­thing, for Amer­ica’s trade bal­ance, real in­come growth, or em­ploy­ment. And they cer­tainly won’t con­vince China to help mit­i­gate the North Korean nu­clear threat.

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