Donald Kirk says the US president may have earned his ‘dotard’ nickname in Singapore by signalling interest in reducing America’s military presence in East Asia, leaving China free to pursue its dreams of regional – and continental – dominance
The Chinese were clearly the big winners in the “summit of the century”, the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the island city state of Singapore, through which about a third of the world’s shipping moves to and from ports in Japan, South Korea, China – Hong Kong, too.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was overjoyed about the results, in which Trump said the United States might eventually withdraw its troops from South Korea and called off annual military exercises. “It is fair to say that the relevant approach and initiative proposed by China”, said Wang, “played a positive and constructive role in getting the situation on the peninsula to where it is now.”
Indeed, if there was any individual winner, besides Kim, that honour had to go to China’s President Xi Jinping. With an abrupt drawdown in US strength in the South, and maybe Japan as well, the Chinese would have clear sailing ahead for expanding influence and authority in East Asia, from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea.
The Japanese, not unexpectedly, took quote a different view. Considering that Japan remains well within range of North Korea’s mid- and short-range missiles, the security implications were obvious, as Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera pointed out.
“The drills and the US military stationed in South Korea play a vital role in East Asia’s security,” said Onodera, hoping “to share this recognition between Japan and the US, or among Japan, US and South Korea”.
Those contrasting responses reflected both China’s delight in seeing a chance to expand its influence in Northeast Asia and Japan’s anxiety over the prospect of the US abandoning the region militarily.
After the summit, Trump said he hoped someday that the US could pull most of its 28,500 troops from the Korean peninsula. He did not talk about America’s 50,000 troops in Japan, most of them at bases in Okinawa, but the inference was clear: the Japanese might finally have to do away with Article 9 of their “peace constitution” and build up their military establishment in defence, not only against China but also against North Korea, whose missiles can hit targets anywhere in Japan.
It’s difficult to believe that Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, both of whom were with Trump in the summit discussion, would have endorsed Trump’s abrupt cancellation of military exercises. Nor would Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who had been in Singapore a week earlier for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defence ministers, have favoured the idea.
Trump, with no experience in Asia and no background in the armed forces, seemed unaware of what he was doing. China, as the real beneficiary, would be able to spread its influence over Northeast Asia, threatening an old enemy, Japan.
Beijing would also be able to solidify its advances in the South China Sea, almost all of which it claims. US planes and warships might challenge Chinese control even as the Chinese build up bases on the Spratly Islands, but US authority would dwindle rapidly as Trump made good on his general view that US forces are not needed in Korea or, probably, Japan.
The Chinese, under Xi, dream of expanding their influence from East Asia to the Indian Ocean, and possibly beyond. They have built a road across the Himalayas to Pakistan, giving them access to Gwadar, the Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea that Chinese engineers and technicians have turned into an international cargo terminal. The ultimate dream is to expand power from the Korean peninsula and the Yellow Sea, across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East.
Trump, yielding to Kim at the summit, appeared totally unaware of the gift he was bestowing not just on the North Korean leader but on Xi, whom he praised as his “good friend”.
Clearly, Kim had decided to meet Trump at the summit with the encouragement of Xi, whom he had seen twice in recent months, first in Beijing and then in Dalian. On the basis of Kim’s conversation with Trump, Xi solidified his relationship with North Korea, allaying suspicions that perhaps China was really on the side of the US on the nuclear question.
Since Kim is not likely to be testing nukes and missiles for some time, Xi is now able to assure him of China’s full support of his dream of economic development.
On the basis of this success, North Korea can expect relief from sanctions, which China is no longer enforcing as it had, reluctantly, since the most severe sanctions were imposed after the North’s sixth and last nuclear test last September.
Kim stands to be rewarded by the Chinese even as Trump believes, foolishly, that he has struck up a new relationship with the one whom he once reviled as “little rocket man”.
Clearly, Kim had not been altogether mistaken to have denounced Trump in those days as a “dotard,” a strange word that means an old man in his dotage, slightly out of his mind and out of touch.