President Trump, partly by accident and partly by design, is redrawing the diplomatic map in Asia. The president’s gambit with North Korea, his willingness to stare down China on trade, his openness to a more robust security relationship with Taiwan, and his confounded unpredictability have created openings in the region not seen for years.
Last week, a Chinese leader visited Japan for the first time in eight years. South Korea, Japan and China held their first trilateral summit since 2015. Last month, China hosted a shirt-sleeves summit with India in Wuhan. Meanwhile, Japan has emerged as a defender of free markets. The hermit kingdom of North Korea may no longer want to be a hermit. And there is even muted criticism in Beijing that the overly aggressive foreign policy of President Xi Jinping might be causing more problems with the United States than it’s worth.
The Trump administration’s policy on North Korea has brought Kim Jong Un out of his country and to the table. Administration officials got there by convincing the U.N. Security Council in August to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang’s economy, banning exports to North Korea of more than $1 billion a year.
China, which is responsible for more than 80 percent of North Korea’s trade, did not sign up because Xi had a good meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017. It signed up because the Trump White House showed that, unlike previous administrations, it was willing to sanction major Chinese companies that, for decades, have kept the North afloat.
Pressure from Trump prompted Kim in February to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, which led to a summit last month between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. China was clearly back-footed by Trump’s outreach to North Korea. Xi has met with Kim twice in less than two months, a clear sign China is concerned that, as Kim moves toward a focus on economic development and potentially open up to South Korea, the West and even Japan, its influence over Pyongyang will wane.
On trade, some of Trump’s policies have unintentionally created opportunities in Asia for positive change. Three days into his administration, the president pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact grouping 12 nations around the Pacific Rim. The deal cut tariffs, opened markets and involved not just manufactured goods but services, along with protections for labor unions and the environment. Trump was blasted for his decision by critics who predicted that, as the United States retreated from the world, China would pick up the pieces.
But what followed has been surprising. The TPP did not collapse and China did not step into the breach. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, did. Thanks to Abe’s leadership, the remaining 11 nations are expected to put the deal into place by 2019. Abe’s guidance, bolstered by Australia and even Vietnam, indicated that the values of a more open trading system are not the sole property of the United States.
Trump’s willingness to slap tariffs on Chinese goods and punish its mercantilist policies — such as those that force American companies to share their advanced technology with China in exchange for a piece of China’s market — are signs of a more confrontational policy towards Beijing. In December, the Trump administration, in its National Security Strategy, labeled China as a strategic competitor for the first time and vowed that the United States “will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression.”
It is too early to declare this gambit a success. But it is also too early to declare, as some have, that “it’s too late,” and that the United States no longer has any economic clout in Beijing. Just look at what has happened to Chinese technology giant ZTE, which announced last week that it would suspend operations after the Commerce Department banned U.S. companies from selling products to ZTE because the Chinese company was reselling those products to North Korea and Iran. On Sunday, Trump announced that he was working with Xi to save the tech giant. One can only imagine what Trump will demand in return when Liu He, China’s economic czar, visits Washington this week. The United States has always had leverage with China; what’s new is that the Trump administration appears intent on using it.
China’s fears about American leverage have forced other changes in Beijing as well. For one, Beijing is paying attention to India. At the end of April, Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a summit in the industrial heartland city of Wuhan, capped by a “heart-to-heart” talk. Any improvement in relations between these two Asian giants, whose armies faced off last year along their border, is a good thing. China wants India’s support for its Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across the developing world. India wants China to pressure Pakistan to end its support of organizations linked to terrorist attacks in India.
Concern that the United States was moving too fast with North Korea has also prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity. It played a role in hastening a rapprochement between China and Japan that has been years in the making. “The relationship between the two countries has come through full circle,” Li Keqiang, China’s premier, told Abe last week during the first Sino-Japanese summit in Japan since 2009. “But the wind and rain have passed, and now we are under a bright sky.” Relations between Tokyo and Beijing will always be fraught, but Li’s honeyed words are a far cry from 2012, when territorial disputes between the two nations led to government-sanctioned, anti-Japan riots in China.
Trump’s decision to sign the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages the administration to send high-ranking American officials and military officers to Taiwan for exchanges with their Taiwanese counterparts, also presages a break with the past and offers some room for Taiwan to improve its security. Since 1979, when the United States recognized Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China, and dropped its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, successive U.S. administrations concluded that the best way to ensure Taiwan’s continuation as a de facto independent nation was by improving ties with Beijing, under the belief that China’s evolution into a kinder, gentler country was inevitable.
The Trump administration holds no truck with this line of thought, and appears prepared to significantly increase its security assistance to the island. Trump officials argue that a policy change is necessary because the old policy did little to stem China’s increasingly aggressive steps toward Taiwan, such as the deployment of hundreds of missiles and the recent on-again, off-again encirclement of Taiwan by bombers and fighters from China’s air force.
The president’s emerging Taiwan policy has also come under fire as risking confrontation with Beijing. But to officials in the Trump administration, complacency in the face of a rising China actually increases the risks of conflict. The stronger Taiwan is, they argue, the less tempted Beijing will be.
Trump’s high-stakes, “let’s-make-a-deal” maneuvers in Asia could, of course, fail. His summit with Kim, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, could flop. The United States and China could enter a damaging trade war that would roil the global economy. Steps that Trump and Congress in the United States are taking to bolster Taiwan could backfire, prompting more tension between the island-democracy and the authoritarian government in Beijing. But, at least at this moment in Asia, the disruption caused by the American president is presenting unprecedented opportunities for diplomacy.