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Trump in Asia: Building war coalition?

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: November 18, 2017 20:31:38 | Updated: November 19, 2017 20:00:18


President Donald Trump has arrived back in the USA after 12 days of tour in Asia declaring his trip as a great success but political observers disagree. His Asian tour took him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. So far this was his longest tour overseas; indeed, it was the longest tour of Asia ever undertaken by a US president. His tour was billed as getting support from allies to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear programme and also to deliver a strong message on trade. But on the both issues, it now appears he has made no breakthrough.

In view of Trump's very erratic nature and his ultra-nationalist character which could result in diplomatic disasters, his minders were busy providing him with quite extensive briefings on the cultural nuances and political parameters he should operate. He was given the script and asked to stick to it. That, of course, included what he could tweet. Yet that did not stop him tweeting by pointing out that he would never call Kim Jong-un "short and fat''.

To ensure that his message was received very clearly by all those who concern, he started his tour in Hawaii. He met with Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US pacific command, the largest US armada, to further emphasise that he was on serious business mission in Asia. To give essence to his tour objectives, three aircraft carriers along with an undisclosed number of nuclear-armed submarines and warships, as well as fighter aircrafts were deployed in the region, in addition to the military arsenal that are already deployed in bases in Australia, Japan, and Guam and South Korea. With the green signal from the commander-in-chief, Admiral Harris can unleash devastating fire power against North Korea.  

On arrival in Japan, Trump ramped up his threat against North Korea by declaring "no dictator'' should undermine America's resolve. He further went on to say that he wanted it to get solved the Korean issue and wants to take a different approach to deal with the issue after years of what he described as "total weakness''. What is that different approach, he did not elaborate. Trump then pointed out his country's US$69-billion trade deficit with Japan and said  we want "fair, free but reciprocal'' trade, clearly hinting at   a bilateral solution to the deficit. But Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso clearly rejected any idea of Japan entering into a bilateral agreement with the USA to resolve the trade imbalance.

President Trump also urged Japan to buy more armaments from the USA, a call he also repeated when he was in South Korea. These two countries are quite capable of building very advanced armament industry qualitatively closely equivalent to that of the USA ( the US armament industry is the largest recipient of the research and development (R&D) grant from the US federal government accounting for  slightly more than half of total US federal R&D grants for 2016. This grant is essentially a federal subsidy to this industry). If that happens the US trade imbalance with these countries will further escalate and pose a competitive challenge to the US armament industry at the global level. This is something the USA cannot allow to happen both on strategic and economic reasons. Trump also pressured Vietnam to buy US armaments to close the trade gap between the two countries. The armament industry with massive federal subsidy remains the major exporting industry and with that one industry the USA will find it difficult to run trade surpluses given that manufacturing accounted for 70 per cent of world merchandise trade in 2015 and close to 60 per cent of total world goods and services trade during the same year. Therefore, the USA will need more than armaments in its manufacturing exports basket to balance the book.

Trump's tour programme was designed to visit Japan first  and then South Korea  to show a united front with the leaders of these countries against North Korea to send a message to President Xi Jinping to be more active to denuclearise North Korea. In his speech to the South Korean Parliament, Trump issued a call to China and also Russia to go beyond the sanctions authorised by the UN Security Council. While he threatened North Korea not to try the US, this speech was otherwise quite restrained compared to his "fire and fury'' speech. The evening before his speech he even suggested that it would be in North Korea's interest to come to the table to "make a deal''. Trump also noted that the longer North Korea continues on the path of increased nuclearisation, the more limited the options become to stop it. The fact of the matter is that the options are already very limited. From the strategic point of view, North Korea has already got the USA where it wanted to be.

China strictly adhered to all the UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. While China is not fond of North Korea's young leader, it can also not afford to see a sudden collapse of the regime at its door steps which will lead to serious consequences not only for China but also for South Korea and Japan. As a way out of the impasse, China proposed a mutual freeze on North Korea's nuclear programe for a freeze on any more joint military exercises conducted by the USA with South Korea or any other allies in the region. Instead, Trump came to South Korea to upgrade regional deployment of US forces to defend "true democracy''. He has not yet ruled out the military option against North Korea, but wants China to stand aside in the event of a war with North Korea, a country with which China has a military alliance treaty.

Trump's threat of war against North Korea is not motivated by any concerns about that country's military or nuclear capabilities which in no way can challenge the US military in any form or shape. It is a very well-designed ploy to attempt to contain China which the US perceives as a rival, both economically and militarily, in the Asia-Pacific region and also internationally. Therefore, a regime change in North Korea resulting in behaviour change will help South Korea to take over the country enabling the USA and its allied forces to position themselves along the Chinese border. Trump's visit to Asia was primarily designed to gather a war coalition against North Korea, and then to use it as a political leverage against China. Not surprisingly, the US President failed to press President Xi to make any new commitments on North Korea.

In china like in Japan, Trump railed against "out of kilter'' trade balance with China which is running a trade surplus of US$347 billion. However, his strong rhetoric on trade against China has not been followed through by any action yet, but both countries signed about US$ 250 billion worth of corporate deals. Trump simply does not understand the issues surrounding the US trade deficit. A trade deficit occurs when a country runs a net capital inflow from the rest of the world and such a net inflow indicates the country is dissaving. Therefore, the solution lies within the USA, not outside to address the US trade deficit issue (if one considers it a problem, and Trump definitely thinks so) - consume less and produce more to export. Furthermore, the US dollar has also appreciated by 25 per cent since 2014 adding to the trade imbalance.

From the Bangladesh perspective, no meeting that Trump attended explicitly addressed genocidal attacks and the uprooting of one million Rohingyas from Myanmar. His offer to mediate in the South China Sea dispute (effectively positioning himself as neutral and taking a distanced position) also failed  to attract any taker.  His neo-mercantilist approach to trade relations based on bilateralism did not have any takers either in the region which solidly stands for multilateralism. No country can put itself at the risk of facing the Trump administration under the slogan "America First". His visit clearly highlighted the mounting problems the USA now confronts around the world. The USA's retreat from the multilateral trading arrangement just affirms that the country finds no economic avenues to continue to assert its pre-eminence as the only superpower - hence its drive to use military  means to assert its position. In the global context, the central issue is not the rise of China but the USA in sharp decline. The reality is Trump is the mirror image of what the USA has become today.

The writer is an independenteconomic and political analyst.

muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

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