President Trump has maintained a laser-like focus on two themes during his Asia trip – the need for firm collective action against the North Korean regime to thwart its nuclear ambitions and the need for negotiation of fairer, more reciprocal bilateral trading arrangements between the United States and its Asian trading partners.
While modulating his rhetoric regarding North Korea, and even holding out the possibility of resumed talks under the right circumstances, the U.S. president made clear that he would not be content with a deal that continues to kick the can down the road. He pointed to the deals over the last 25 years that were supposed to lead to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, which the North Korean regime failed to honor. “The North Korean regime has pursued its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in defiance of every assurance, agreement, and commitment it has made to the United States and its allies,” the president declared in his speech to the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul.
Trump warned North Korea that it now faced an administration determined to take a different approach. “Do not underestimate us, and do not try us,” he said. The president added “a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” that the weapons he is acquiring “are putting your regime in grave danger.”
Trump urged “all responsible nations” to “join forces” to isolate the North Korean regime. “We call on every nation, including China and Russia, to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions, downgrade diplomatic relations with the regime, and sever all ties of trade and technology,” he said. “And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat, or, worse still, to enable it, the weight of this crisis is on your conscience.”
North Korea and trade were very much on the president’s mind when he arrived in China and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump’s public statements were very complimentary towards China and its leader. However, he did not shy away from speaking frankly about the North Korean menace or the trade imbalance between the United States and China.
In his remarks to the press alongside President Xi, Trump said that “we discussed our mutual commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea…We agreed on the need to fully implement all U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea and to increase economic pressure until North Korea abandons its reckless and dangerous path.” President Xi spoke in similar terms on denuclearization and implementation of the UN sanctions in his own remarks to the press, while also calling for negotiations.
China has already taken steps to pressure North Korea far beyond what it had been willing to do prior to the Trump presidency. That said, Trump is looking for more. Behind the scenes during their private talks, Trump reportedly urged President Xi to increase China’s economic pressure on North Korea, including by cutting off oil shipments completely, cutting banking ties, and sending North Korean workers located in China back home. There has been no clear indication that China would agree to go this far, fearing that to do so would precipitate a chaotic breakdown of the North Korean state, mass exodus of North Korean refugees into China and the possibility of eventual re-unification of the Korean Peninsula on terms friendly to the United States. Squeezing North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un a bit further to persuade him to stop taking actions that could needlessly provoke the United States beyond its tipping point is one thing. Forcing a collapse of the North Korean regime if Kim Jong-un does not agree to complete denuclearization is quite another.
President Trump also discussed trade during his visit to China and during his subsequent stop in Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. He blamed prior U.S. administrations for agreeing to multilateral trade deals that were unfavorable to the United States. Standing alongside President Xi at their joint press appearance in Beijing, Trump complained of “the massive trade distortion” between the two countries. He called for the two nations to address “China’s market access restrictions and technology transfer requirements, which prevent American companies from being able to fairly compete within China.”
President Xi spoke in more general terms. He used one of his favorite expressions, “win-win cooperation,” to describe the relationship with the United States that he said he wants to foster, based on respect for “each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He said China would be willing “to have continued in-depth discussion on trade imbalance, export, investment environment, market openness, and other issues.” He mentioned the signing of “over $250 billion U.S. dollars of commercial deals and two-way investment agreements.”
At the APEC forum in Vietnam, Trump expanded on his complaints about multilateral trade deals and institutions that disadvantaged the United States. “I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first,” the president remarked. “I will make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation that wants to be our partner and that will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade. What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.” Trump criticized the World Trade Organization for treating the United States unfairly and permitting other countries to flout its rules.
As he had done in China, the president blamed past weak American leaders for the bad deals, rather than other nations’ leaders who were simply looking after their citizens’ best interests. He was not going to fall into the trap he believed was set by the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which he pulled the United States out of shortly after he took office.
Trump’s critics have been complaining about the president’s performance on his Asia trip. On a trivial note, the anti-Trump media went into a frenzy over the image of the president in Japan emptying a box of fish food into a koi pond. The fact that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had done the same thing right before President Trump seems to have eluded the press.
Some critics have claimed that Trump was too nice to Chinese President Xi and came away from his visit to Beijing with little to show for it. The $250 billion package, for example, is said to be much less than meets the eye in terms of binding Chinese commitments and will do little to shrink the trade deficit. There was no visible progress on fixing the underlying causes of the trade imbalance or on thwarting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, short of war, critics have argued. Moreover, critics have complained that President Trump was too willing to cede to China the preeminence on the global stage that its leader has been trumpeting. Instead, as the New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen put it, “America First, Trump’s ugly slogan, reeks of retrenchment.”
These critics are missing the bigger picture. First, they fail to appreciate the message that Trump’s public promotion of his closer relations and extensive meetings with China’s leader sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump met only briefly in passing while in Vietnam. There were no formal structured talks as the Russians had hoped, which could be interpreted as intended to diminish Putin's image as a global leader at this juncture in comparison to President Xi's. Two issues the Russian and U.S. presidents did discuss during their short chats were Syria and Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election. In response to critics, President Trump explained that he believed the assessment of the U.S. intelligence agencies, “especially as currently constituted with their leadership,” not President Putin's denial of Russian interference. At the same time, however, Trump wants to look forward rather than remain stuck on an issue that Putin refuses to acknowledge as valid. He aims to secure needed Russian cooperation on some critical issues, particularly regarding North Korea, when they are ready to cooperate.
Second, Trump’s public demonstration of solidarity with China’s leader was meant to send a message to North Korea as well. The economic noose around Kim Jong-un’s neck is continuing to tighten. Moreover, China is no longer complaining so much about the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system in South Korea. It is hardly a coincidence that just days before Trump’s visit to South Korea and China, those two countries put aside their dispute over the THAAD system and resumed normal relations.
Kim Jong-un may be starting to take notice, despite North Korea’s continued heated rhetoric to which Trump responded in kind via Twitter. So far, North Korea has not fired a ballistic missile or conducted a nuclear test as an act of defiance while Trump was in its neighborhood.
Third, Trump has laid down a clear marker for the kind of fairer, more reciprocal trade deals he will insist upon. Trade deficits caused by unbalanced trade deals result in a lower U.S. Gross Domestic Product and less jobs for American workers. Moreover, such a large trading imbalance favoring China, for example, is helping to fund its economic and military rise to a level that can pose the very type of serious challenge to U.S. global leadership that Trump’s critics claim to be worried about.
Finally, an America First policy does not mean ceding global leadership to China or retreating from multilateral cooperation. Protecting national sovereignty and supporting sensible multilateral cooperation are not mutually exclusive. A rational form of multilateral cooperation on a global or regional problem is aimed at producing net positive results against an achievable common goal while still respecting national sovereignty. On the other hand, it is not rational for a nation to allow itself to become “subservient to, dependent on, constricted by the will–and interests–of other nations,” as Charles Krauthammer put it, including by succumbing to a “mania for treaties.” China’s President Xi recognizes the difference. President Trump does also.