Trump's Chance to Walk Back His Asia Bluster
U.S. President Donald Trump’s phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the weekend visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are important reminders of a basic reality: While we Americans obsess over the constitutionality of the president’s executive order on immigration, the rest of the world keeps on going. Measured by number of people it affects, foreign policy outranks domestic affairs. If Trump manages to create diplomatic chaos in Asia, history won’t pay much attention to the rest of his presidency.
The call with Xi, in which Trump agreed to continue the U.S.’s “One China” policy, was a sign of foreign policy rationality -- and a recognition that the U.S. is weaker relative to China than Trump seems to have imagined before he took office.
As if to prove it, Xi used Trump-style tactics before the call, insisting that he wouldn’t get on the phone unless Trump agreed in advance to embrace One China. That’s more or less what Trump did to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, insisting that Nieto shouldn’t come to Washington unless he agreed in advance to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The difference, of course, is that Nieto didn’t knuckle under, preferring to give up the visit, and Trump did. It can’t have been pleasant for Trump to admit that, as the White House put it, he “agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our One China policy.” But Trump had little choice. He couldn’t forgo all communication with the leader of the second-most-influential country in the world.
In practice, One China means only that if a country wants to have diplomatic relations with China, it can’t also have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have been prepared to live with this.
But Trump called the policy into question in December through his much-publicized phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Then, Trump told Fox News, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
Trump now has an answer to his question: The reason the U.S. has to be bound by the policy is that it would lose too much by abandoning it. The price that China could extract would be much too high for any benefit that might be gained by creating diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
And that benefit would certainly be minimal. The U.S. has very close de facto ties to Taiwan, including a purposefully vague quasi-commitment to defending it from Chinese attack.
The only reason to end the One China policy would have been to use it as a bargaining chip with China. Trump clearly thought that he might be able to gain concessions from doing so.
Xi’s point in making the policy a condition of the phone call was to show Trump that he can’t change the terms of the bargain between the two countries unilaterally. This round went to Xi.
Abe’s visit affords Trump another opportunity to walk back hostile comments and conduct Asia policy rationally. On the campaign trail, Trump sharply criticized the traditional U.S.-Japan relationship, characterized by U.S. security guarantees and strong trade ties. Among other things, Trump said the U.S. should be “prepared to walk” in negotiations with Japan, leaving it to “defend itself against North Korea.”
It might be good strategy in a real estate deal to be able to walk away from the table at any time. But that’s preposterous coming from a superpower, particularly one that has sought for almost 75 years to maintain its hegemony in the Pacific. It’s worth remembering that Japan didn’t choose to be under U.S. security guarantees. The U.S. made that arrangement after defeating Japan in World War II and forcing it to relinquish its capacity for offensive war on a permanent, constitutional basis.
To walk away from the table with Japan would mean inviting Japan to arm itself and assert a dominant position in Asia. It would also signal U.S. weakness vis-à-vis China.
Now Trump will have to use the visit to reassure Japan about U.S. security guarantees -- in other words, to walk back his previous policies.
As for trade, Trump will have to explore some way to work out a bilateral deal, because his first week in office he trashed the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have included Japan. Abe had expended significant political capital getting legislative agreement to join the TPP. Trump will be hoping to take advantage of the efforts Abe made on behalf of closer ties to the U.S. That would be a lot easier if Trump hadn’t cut off Abe at the knees with his TPP announcement.
The upshot is that Trump now has the chance to start pursuing a more tenable Asia policy. That would be good. And if it works, maybe he can start rethinking some of his domestic policies, too. I can think of at least one executive order that would benefit from being scrapped and redrafted from scratch.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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