If Donald Trump wants to turn the heat up on North Korea and China, as recent statements by himself and his administration leaders suggest, then he’s going to have to fail to implement many of his campaign promises.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on his visit to Seoul,”Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley two weeks ago said there was no time for talks, which she doesn’t expect would go anywhere, with North Korea.
Trump weighed in on Twitter: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
(Trump likes to use quotation marks randomly for things that don’t need to be in quotation marks (as GQ notes). Recall his warning from January 30 that there are “A lot of bad “dudes” out there!”)
As for specifics, Tillerson has talked about aggressively blacklisting and imposing fines on Chinese companies that violate sanctions, and keeping military options open.
ZTE corporation has been fined $1.2 billion in early March. The Obama administration also imposed sanctions on a number of companies in 2016.
“Certainly, we do not want for things to get to a military conflict. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table,” Tillerson said.
If Trump goes through with this strategy, then he will have to abandon many of the protectionist vows he made on the campaign trail.
Trump has said many times that South Korea and other U.S. allies should pay the U.S.–much more, in his words–for U.S. defense. “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them. We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this,” he said on “Meet the Press” in January.
“We defend South Korea … We defend these countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us,” he said at the first general election debate.
Now the administration is already talking about using force to defend South Korea without having demanded anything more from South Korea.
In fact, Trump telegraphed this change shortly after being elected. In a phone call to then-president Park, he reportedly reassured Park that the U.S. stood with Korea.
Trump also talked about renegotiating the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Attempting to do so at such a fraught time in Korea would strain U.S.-Korean relations,. Moreover, anything that would cut U.S. trade with Korea and result in Korea having to rely more on China would make Korea more susceptible to Chinese informal sanctions, the likes of which China has been hitting Korea with by cutting flights, banning Kpop videos, and throwing regulatory challenges at Lotte department stores, in retaliation for Korean deployment of THAAD missile defense systems. Letting China pressure Korea even more over US-produced THAAD and other American-backed initiatives could hurt the prospects of those U.S. initiatives directly.
It is likely that Trump simply voiced whatever positions he thought would get him elected and knew he could jettison most of them after the election. Maybe he knew American voters don’t care deeply about foreign policy but like to hear “tough” sounding words. I have previously noted here that his “anti-interventionism” was a lie. I wrote for China.org.cn that he doesn’t fit into ordinary ideological lines on foreign policy and here at B+D that he has no real foreign policy ideas whatsoever.
By calling for South Korea to “pay more,” he sounded “tough” on Korea and “America first.” By saying he will act aggressively towards North Korea, he sounds “tough.”
If his lieutenants carry out the policies of aggressive defense of South Korea smartly, then it could work well. It is clearly a better strategy than pulling out troops from South Korea, and arguably a better strategy than going into talks to produce a worthless agreement North Korea that has shown time and time again it won’t intend on upholding.