Trump’s Diplomatic Reality Show Hits Summer Re-Run Season

Photo: AFP

This op-ed appears originally appeared on the SCMP website 7/5/19.


Last Sunday, US President Donald Trump crossed the guarded border in Panmunjom, a village in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. He smiled and shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as photographers rushed to capture the history-making moment. This was, after all, the first time a sitting US president had set foot in reclusive North Korea.

What could have been a breakthrough meeting between the last cold war rivals instead devolved into yet another photo op for the White House family album.

Meanwhile, Trump gains little from giving away personal meetings like candy from a cheap dispenser.

A one-hour-plus Trump-Kim meeting followed without any discernible outcome, other than that the negotiators will get back to negotiating. So we end up where we started, sold on an empty victory as the Donald Trump diplomatic reality show goes into its summer rerun phase.

Under an administration that is obsessed with camera-ready events rather than serious strategy, the country’s credibility around the world continues to decline.

Imagine if this effort had gone into concluding a comprehensive treaty with the North, eliminating the missile and nuclear threat and establishing a durable peace on the Korean peninsula. Then this meeting might have been worth something.

Instead, Trump love-bombed Kim. This flattery may be Trump’s attempt to get the reclusive leader out into the world and impress him with the riches that could be his if he would give up his nukes – except that Kim is not that naive. To believe that Kim would succumb to Trump’s charms and miraculously give up weapons he thinks ensures his country’s survival shows a remarkable lack of sophistication on Trump’s part.

While the White House preoccupies itself with staging publicity stunts, North Korea keeps winning, the longer Kim holds out for a deal. Stringing Washington along is cost-free and gives the young leader larger international exposure and some semblance of overseas influence. Also, perhaps more importantly, it buys him time to continue developing his nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Trump gains little from giving away personal meetings like candy from a cheap dispenser.

The administration’s preference for optics over policy is not limited to North Korea. Meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Trump eased national-security restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei in exchange for a promise of increased Chinese imports of US goods. China was already buying large quantities of US agricultural products before he imposed tariffs – so yet again, we have an apparent development that just pushed the trade talks back to where they started.

However, Trump’s sudden back-pedalling on Huawei – like his flip-flop on ZTE, another Chinese smartphone maker that had been banned from buying US components after breaking US sanctions against Iran – only adds to other countries’ concern. With Trump, everything is a commodity to be traded.

On Iran, the White House has shown a propensity for haphazard thinking. After repeatedly warning Tehran that shooting down a US drone and attacking ships in the Strait of Hormuz would result in decisive action, Trump suddenly reversed course. He said he was concerned about the loss of life. But it wasn’t a convincing excuse because military commanders could have easily offered other targets or options for retaliation if that was the major issue.

Impulsive and consensus-bending actions are now being emulated among US allies. Japan and South Korea have, in the past, worked in concert on economic and security issues. At the G20 summit in Osaka, both countries adopted a declaration to “realise a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, to keep our markets open”.

Yet, within days, Japan imposed restrictions on hi-tech exports to South Korea. The sudden action appeared to be in retaliation for a top Korean court ruling on Japanese compensation for wartime forced labour, an issue which Japan says it settled under a 1965 treaty.

The world will be worse off if this rot continues. Back in the US, domestic politics is also replacing substance with style and made-for-television flash. According to a Pew survey in June, an overwhelming majority of Americans – 85 per cent – believe that political discourse in the US has become worse, and 55 per cent blame Trump. Huge numbers believe that political debate has become less respectful, fact-based, and substantive.

Leadership has always had an element of stagecraft – grand settings for formal talks, the glare of press corps lights, red carpets. “Politics is show business for ugly people,” as the saying goes. But leaders have to be judged by what they actually accomplish.

So far, global leaders have willingly participated in Washington’s publicity stunts, but as the ties that bind nation to nation slowly unravel, international cooperation will become more difficult. Not only is the world less safe as a result, the preference for symbolic gestures over concrete action also encourages a rise in personality politics.

Even Trump admits in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal: “You can’t con people, at least not for long … if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” The only question remaining is how much longer this con that has lasted 2½ years can keep going.


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Conflicting Signals: USTR Ups Pressure on China and Treasury Talks Lifting Tariffs

Messaging is everything in international diplomacy, especially around high-level negotiations. After the latest round of U.S.-China trade talks in Beijing, all signs pointed to a successful outcome. An extra day was added beyond the planned two days of talks. Vice Premier Liu He made a short appearance at the lower-lower-level gathering of deputies. The U.S. Deputy Agriculture Secretary had glowing words after the meeting (though curiously no one from USTR spoke during the coveted press briefing.) Trump even tweeted shortly afterwards that the talks had gone very well.

And then the messaging changed, at least from USTR. 

Lighthizer said last week, according to Sen. Grassley who had met with him Friday, that he hadn’t seen the structural changes he was looking for from China. That’s a major sticking point for the White House and something Trump has repeatedly said must be addressed to avoid raising tariffs from 10% to 25% on Chinese goods.

It is an odd complaint since China would likely only agree to the far more difficult issues face-to-face at Cabinet-level negotiations with either USTR Lighthizer or President Trump. The Beijing meeting was a the Deputy level, a.k.a. not the decision makers.

Lighthizer also announced that if talks don’t work out, U.S. companies could apply for exclusions to the 25% tariffs on $200 billion of imports from China that are set to take affect in March.

That’s a weak nod to the U.S. business community who were directly affected by the 10% tariffs and are likely lobbying hard for a resolution to the trade impasse. The promise of exclusions provide cold comfort since the aim of the next round of tariffs is to put even more pressure on China. Any exclusions would weaken that influence. Approvals would likely be slow-rolled by the administration. 

USTR now appears to be trying to get out in front and push their hardline agenda ahead of the Jan. 30-31 talks. Sen. Grassley commented in a briefing to the press that since China’s economy is ailing there’s a chance to get more progress on these harder issues, which include IP protection, forced tech transfer, and stealing trade secrets.

These issues aren’t going away. The Department of Justice is now looking into whether Huawei stole robotic technology from T-Mobile.

To further complicate the administration’s signaling, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has been discussing lifting tariffs as an incentive for China to make an equally bold move, though it’s unclear what that could be considering the depth of structural changes needed to satisfy U.S. concerns.

Since China isn’t going to agree to the U.S. list of over one hundred issues raised, and Trump isn’t going to accept some token purchases of U.S. goods and nothing else, some kind of compromise is necessary. What Grassley and other White House hardliners may not fully accept is that Trump’s approval ratings are plummeting, major U.S. companies are feeling the effects of the tariffs, and Trump himself may be itching for a settlement.

Compromise isn’t really in Trump’s winner-take-all approach and his impulsiveness can lead to unexpected outcomes (e.g. the Wall shutdown). The U.S. and China have been locked in a mutually reinforcing death spiral of tariff-raising for the past year and time is on no one’s side here.

USTR should certainly push for everything they can get. If cooler heads prevail, some sort of short-term relief with continued tariffs on some Chinese goods, and a plan to tackle the harder issues over time is the most likely outcome.

Both sides might not get exactly what they what, but it’s certainly better than the global economic carnage of a prolonged trade war and Trump really looks like he could use a win right now.


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Deal or No Deal in U.S.-China Trade Talks

U.S. negotiators are heading back after an extended trade negotiation with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing. While there’s been no formal agreement yet, both sides are expected to make public announcements on Thursday. If talks had gone badly something would have come out in the official Chinese state-run press by now, so all signs point to some kind of deal. Will it, however solve any of the more difficult challenges in the relationship?

Trump wants to see markets rebound. Chasing the sugar high of a stock jump is hardly a trade policy, and a terrible negotiating position. This essentially gave China added negotiating leverage knowing he is eager to settle. That doesn’t bode well for any substantial movement on the most difficult issues facing U.S. exporters — forced tech transfer, non-tariff barriers, and intellectual property theft. That was the whole reason Trump launched his ill-thought out trade war in the first place by ratcheting up tariffs on Chinese goods.

If there’s no movement on those hard issues, what was the point? China announced they’re going to be buying U.S. soybeans again, but China was already buying U.S. soybeans before Trump’s tariffs. That’s not a concession. 

China also announced that U.S. rice would be allowed into their market. While this is new, market access isn’t likely to dent the trade deficit as U.S. rice prices are significantly higher than other suppliers to China, most notable from Southeast Asia.

Other Chinese government moves included reduction in auto-tariffs, already offered to the rest of the world. While some legal reforms have been mentioned, enhancing IPR protection for example, changes in law are often not fully implemented. Given the inherently political nature of China’s judicial system, companies have little recourse.

These “structural” reforms tend to be the most difficult, often edging too close to issues that party hardliners in Beijing hold dear (e.g. favorable government and financial support to state-owned enterprises.) They’ll most likely kick the can down the road like they have for years and wait out what’s left of the Trump presidency.

That’s the crux of these negotiations. Are Chinese officials convinced that Trump will hold his line or will he cave to his own domestic economic pressures? It’s looking like Trump’s eagerness for a win will trump his own hardliners who are pushing for China to fundamentally change the way they do business. While that’s a laudable goal, they’ve used the wrong tool for this kind of heavy lifting.

Adding to the uncertainty, no senior-level negotiator was present for the talks. This was more of a working level negotiation and all of the familiar figures in Washington need to give their input including U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer, Treasury Sec. Mnuchin, and Advisers Navarro and Kudlow. Interestingly it was mainly the Agriculture Deputy Secretary who spoke to the press, not the USTR Deputy Secretary, who ostensibly led the negotiations.

So what did Trump get out of all this turmoil? Hard to say until tomorrow, and there’s still three weeks to the March deadline, but there will be plenty of spin about the great, great, concessions that no U.S. president has ever gotten from China before. 

Expect an announcement highlighting all the U.S. goods China is going buy as a result. For comparison, from Jan. to Oct. 2018 China bought $102.5 billion in U.S. goods. Over the same period in 2017 the number was $104.5 billion (U.S. Census data for 2018 is currently available through Oct.) If the structural issues aren’t resolved, don’t expect too much difference in overall U.S. exports, especially as China’s economy slows down.

Markets react quickly to news, and then adjust to facts. Trump might still get his temporary stock bump, but a sugar high never lasts. China is playing the long game and a fickle market movement is about as small a win as it gets. 


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Trump Has Few Options on Huawei Sanctions Trouble

Time is running out on the U.S. extradition request for Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhong who was arrested in Canada in December. This follows an investigation on sanctions-busting by the firm related to business ties with Iran. Trump said that he might intervene in the case if it helped with the China trade impasse and for national security reasons.  As much as he’d like to use the Huawei case for political purposes he actually has few options. 

Intervening creates a dangerous linkage between national security issues and trade politics. China routinely engages in this type of politicization, and is part and parcel of their attempts to influence other countries over a variety of perceived slights. In 2017 South Korea’s Lotte department store chain shut its China operations after a concerted government effort to thwart their business (stores were suddenly hit with fire hazard violations,) when the firm gave up land to the South Korean government for a U.S. THAAD missile defense system installation. In 2011 the Chinese gov’t banned Norwegian salmon after the Nobel Prize was awarded to Liu Xiabo, a Chinese dissident who later died while in custody.

State Department Issues China Travel Warning for Americans

The U.S. is not China, and a Trump intervention would signal that the rule of law is no longer the rule of the land. The political backlash from left, right, and what remains of the center would be swift and significant.

Political intervention would make Trump look weak on China, again. Trump already gave Xi Jinping a huge gift when he lifted a ban on ZTE after its own Iran sanctions trouble. The company would have gone out of business without that commercial “pardon” to continue purchasing U.S. technology. Xi Jinping did not return the favor and blocked Qualcomm’s $44 billion purchase of NXP. China was the only country standing in the way. 

Canda Warns U.S. Not to Politicize Extradition Case (Reuters)

That’s not to say Trump won’t try, but a criminal case is harder to interfere with than the ZTE sanctions case. Politically, Democrats have the majority in the House and will hit from the left. Hardline Republicans, who want a more forceful policy on China, will strike from the right. And any meddling in the Department of Justice while Mueller’s investigations remain open would be a huge red flag for those considering impeachment hearings.

The only option is to let the legal system run its course. While this may inflame tensions with China in the short term, it reduces the chances of a U.S. political backlash.

Don’t be surprised though if Trump surprises us all and defies the collective wisdom with an impulsive response if Canada agrees with the extradition request. While he has the power to free Huawei’s CFO, promising more than he can deliver ahead of time may prove that a Trump promise made, is a promise easily broken. That would significantly weaken his trade negotiating position vis-a-vis China.


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U.S.-China Trade Deal Already in Doubt

 

Trump Chaos Rattles China Trade Negotiations Before They Even Begin

Just days after President Trump claimed success in trade disputes with China, disagreement over the details have emerged. That rings with a familiar tune.

The Trump-Kim Summit this past June in Singapore raised similar doubts about what, if anything, was actually accomplished. It turns out that even with a loosely worded document we now know that nothing was formalized after that highly touted success.

While North Korea continues to develop missiles and possibly more nuclear weapons, Trump complains he hasn’t been offered the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. 

The Saturday Trump-Xi dinner in Buenos Aires didn’t even offer anything in writing and journalists were left guessing why applause erupted from behind closed doors as the dinner ended. There was no press conference or photo op to clear up the issue as Trump & Co. headed for the airport.

After landing, Trump claimed Chinese auto tariffs were being lifted. The White House has now walked that back. Trump claimed China would spend over $1 trillion on U.S. goods. His economic advisor Larry Kudlow said that was more aspirational than specific and would be determined by private entities and economic conditions. Trump said if China doesn’t make bold moves in ninety days, he’s Mr. Tariff, and then suggested the timeline might be extended.

No one knows what success looks like three months from now, and that’s a serious problem.

Now China has expressed its discontent with the White House version of winning it all. Yet again, Trump excels at undiplomatic posturing while others are left to clean up his mess.

The pattern here is clear. Trump’s erratic words cannot be trusted, only managed, even by those closest to him. It’s another episode of “Promises Made, Promises Broken.”

U.S. markets didn’t like that kind of uncertainty, and along with other negative financial news on Tuesday, they shed over 3% in one of the worst days in their history. 

Making matters worse, US Trade Representative Lighthizer replaced Treasury Secretary Mnuchin as lead negotiator. Lighthizer is a known China hawk, and while having someone strong-willed and skeptical at the table is an advantage, if the lead isn’t considered to be negotiating in good faith that will not end well for bilateral relations or the international trading system.

The biggest risk at the end of February will be China claiming they did everything they said they would do and the U.S. saying whatever they did wasn’t enough.

Chinese state media has already started making the list and announced increased punishments for firms found guilty of IP theft, but will they be implemented?   

If Trump really wants to reduce the trade deficit, protect intellectual property, and remove investment barriers, he and his team are going to have to be far more disciplined than they have been to date, and that seems highly unlikely.

Playing loose and fast with the facts, tweeting exaggerated wins, and painting Chinese negotiators into a corner will not make this relationship work. Both sides have to be able win.

 

U.S.-China Trade War – Attack on Consumers

The next tranche of U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods are about to hit. Rather than being largely invisible to the public like the first $50 billion, round two includes seafood, bicycles, suitcases, bags, carpets, air conditioners, and sports gear (an exhaustive list of over 190 pages can be found as a USTR .pdf file here.)

(DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett – Wikimedia Commons)

Other imports subject to tariffs this time around include auto glass, tires, engines, iron, steel, flooring, and construction tools. A visit to Lowe’s or a home improvement project will cost more, along with new cars that use China-made inputs.

This is the beginning of his attack on consumers, but not the worst yet. Some of the most popular consumer items including toys, cell phones, and pharmaceuticals, were not included. A consumer backlash is the last thing the Trump administration needs right now as polls continue to show Republican candidates struggling in the run-up to the midterms. The widespread business outcry would also be hard to contain.

Still, this latest round of tariffs and the failed recent trade talks suggest more problems ahead for the relationship as both Trump and Xi harden their positions. 

Some China policy advisors have concluded that Trump is hell-bent on weakening China. That view casts the tit-for-tat tariff struggle in a far more damaging political light. Xi Jinping will be easily backed into a corner where he has no choice but to fight and show his people how strong China has become.

Trump’s advisors meanwhile, including Larry Kudlow, are feeding him the false impression that China’s economy is on the ropes and ripe for disruption. With a “winner take all” approach Trump will have to keep ratcheting up the pressure, no matter how much he breaks in the process.

With so much distrust and misinformation flowing freely, expect this dispute to go well into 2019 and affect consumers far more than at present.

The U.S. can include almost $200+ billion more in traded goods. China, out of categories to include by then, can opt for a trade war by other means by restricting U.S. business operations and increasing scrutiny of foreign investment.

To be sure this is no easy win for Trump, no matter how many times he says it. Tariffs are a blunt instrument. Come January the domestic environment, including Congress, may not be so supportive of his “get tough” efforts, which will have done little except to increase consumer prices and the cost of doing business.