THERE WAS, to be sure, more showmanship than substance in President Trump’s meetings with the Chinese and North Korean leaders over the weekend and a disturbing lack of detail in the president’s accounts of what came out of them. The odds of a breakthrough in negotiations over China’s trade practices or North Korea’s nuclear arsenal still look long. But at a time of growing danger and disorder in U.S. foreign relations, there’s reason to be grateful for even a temporary easing of tensions — and that is what Mr. Trump’s summits with Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un seem to have accomplished.
Following his bilateral meeting with Mr. Xi at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Mr. Trump announced that he had backed away from imposing tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese exports to the United States he had not yet sanctioned. He also said he was easing sweeping restrictions on sales by U.S. companies to the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. In return, Mr. Trump claimed that Beijing would soon be buying a “tremendous amount” of U.S. agricultural goods, which it has largely shunned since Mr. Trump launched his tariff war last year.
As hawkish critics were quick to point out, agricultural purchases do nothing to address the central U.S concerns with China’s political economy, including discrimination against U.S. companies and technology theft. But the additional tariffs Mr. Trump was threatening, and the Commerce Department’s draconian Huawei boycott, portended major and counterproductive disruption to both economies and to the U.S.-China relationship more broadly.
By setting them aside, Mr. Trump at least avoided a self-inflicted wound and made possible a more sensible U.S. policy. As we have said, a coherent U.S. strategy for confronting the Xi regime would focus on the threat it poses to Asian security through its aggression in the South China Sea; the cultural genocide it has undertaken in the Xinjiang region, driven by new high-tech systems of repression; and the structural barriers to a more equitable economic relationship. For now, Mr. Trump seems more concerned with pacifying farmers in Midwestern states important to his reelection campaign. But a truce, if that is what was reached in Osaka, is preferable to a senseless escalation of the tariff war, or the new Cold War some in Washington seem to want.
Similarly, there is not much room for optimism that Mr. Trump’s showy encounter with North Korea’s brutal dictator and steps into North Korean territory on Sunday will open the way to the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” that the administration set as its goal. But since a failed summit meeting in Hanoi in February, the Kim regime had refused to resume talks; after Sunday’s summit, Mr. Trump said teams from both sides would restart negotiations in a few weeks.
That could stanch what has been a slow escalation of tensions, including new missile firings by North Korea and threats to return to more provocative action by the end of the year. As in the case of China, real progress would require a change in U.S. strategy: Instead of insisting Pyongyang quickly give up all of its weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Trump would have to settle for a phased approach that started with partial limits on North Korean nukes. His national security adviser insisted Monday no such change of policy was contemplated. But the president has at least created the possibility of a course correction.