Why Trump's China visit can't be deemed a success

US president has created a lot of uncertainty about the thrust of US policies in East Asia.

 |  5-minute read |   14-11-2017
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Donald Trump’s extensive East Asia visit has not produced any striking results, which is not surprising as US policy towards this region is marked by contradictions. China’s policies in the region have become increasingly disruptive, but an effective US response is absent because huge American trade and financial links to China rob Washington of the kind of tools deployed against Russia where American economic stakes are very limited.

Russia is being punished over sovereignty issues involving Ukraine and perceived threats to US allies in Europe, but China is not being penalised for asserting arbitrary sovereignty claims in East and South China Seas, bullying US allies in the region and threatening the freedom of navigation and overflights there.

Issues

Trump can neither visit Russia nor engage Vladimir Putin meaningfully elsewhere, but he has received Xi Jinping in his private Florida estate and has now made a “state visit plus” to China. While such visits do not necessarily produce long-lasting results if differences are deep and structural — Barack Obama’s meetings with Putin failed to mend US-Russia ties — their immediate objective is to manage and stabilise ties. In that sense, there is a vested interest in both sides and to project success even if it is meagre in reality.

The US President had two principal issues to flog with China — reducing America’s massive trade deficit and countering the North Korean nuclear threat. By seeking China’s crucial support for defanging Pyongyang of its nuclear teeth, Trump has weakened his hand on pummelling Beijing on trade issues. He cannot solicit Chinese cooperation on one vital issue and threaten China on another.

In fact, China has neither the means nor the resolve to denuclearise North Korea, and Trump too, despite his bluster, cannot use military means to achieve that objective without exposing Seoul to horrendous consequences.

China will not abandon North Korea so long as the US is militarily present in South Korea, and the US cannot withdraw from the Korean peninsula without unraveling its long-standing security arrangements in the region and eroding the political foundation of its presence there. Trump will not get satisfaction from China on both issues.

China has played the shrewder card so far, building its economic power on the back of America and its allies and using the strength acquired (including military) to challenge American power in the region.

If the US has huge economic stakes in China, so has China in the US, and in a sense even more as China has flourished through its US connection and the process of globalisation promoted by America. Yet, China is willing to strategically defy the US and the latter is unable to effectively counter it.

Trump has created a lot of uncertainty about the thrust of US policies in East Asia. The intensely parochial “America First” philosophy sends a signal even to its allies in the region that US interests will override theirs. Such a message cannot remain limited to the economic domain as it will create doubts about US security commitments to the region if their excessive burden is seen by the US as weakening it economically.

This explains why Trump wants US allies to buy more American arms as a price for providing them security. In Japan, Trump stated, with Abe alongside, the importance of Japan purchasing “massive amounts of military equipment”, whether F-35s or missiles because it “is a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan and other countries that are purchasing a lot of military equipment from us”.

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Relationship

On the same podium, however, Trump called his relationship with Xi “excellent” and declared that he “liked him a lot”. He continued his flattery of Xi during his China visit calling him “a very special man”, a “highly respected and powerful representative of his people”, and congratulating him for consolidating his power at the recent “very successful” Communist party congress.

Why he should want to bolster Xi Jinping’s stature internally in China and externally too by such lavish praise of a leader who has emerged as a dictatorial, power-driven figure, contemptuous of Western democracy and determined to challenge the US in Asia is baffling, all the more so as Xi reserved no such effusions for Trump as a person and leader in return.

Response

Oddly, Trump’s visits produced no joint statements, which points to the difficulties in agreeing to balanced formulations on divisive issues with the White House. The release of the White House on the Trump-Xi talks is not substantial. Xi used the opportunity of the joint press conference with Trump to elaborate on China’s positions on issues on the agenda with the US.

He sought practical cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, called for respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (subjects on which China’s unilateralism under Xi is becoming more objectionable), underlined China’s role in the Asia-Pacific, claiming that “the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States”, which is an indirect way of affirming that China will pursue its assertive policies in this region and the US should yield it the space it wants.

This implies the absence of any recognition that its muscle-flexing is causing unwanted tensions in the region. In sum, it remains unclear at the international level how forcefully Trump wants to respond to China’s challenge to US power. India has to keep watching.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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