June 13, 2017 7:00 pm JST

Trump open to direct talks with North Korea, says ex-aide

Transition team member Ado Machida says president is not cozying up to China

SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

Ado Machida was the head of policy implementation on U.S. President Donald Trump's transition team.

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to go the extra mile to understand his rivals, which is why he is open to direct dialogue with North Korea, according to the former head of policy implementation on Trump's transition team.

"I think we have in this president someone who is willing to take the extra step to understand who he is dealing with," Ado Machida, who still has close ties with the administration, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday. Trump said during the presidential campaign that he would be open to eating a hamburger with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and recently said in an interview with a U.S. media outlet that he would be "honored" to meet Kim "under the right circumstances."

"[That comment] was criticized because it did not seem to fit the American viewpoint of what North Korea means," Machida said. "But from the president's perspective, if he is going to negotiate an agreement with North Korea or at least have an understanding, the first step has to be a mutual dialogue. Otherwise, you do not know what is in the realm of the possible."

The president is increasingly relying on China, North Korea's neighbor and ally, to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. For this reason, Trump has taken a softer stance on Beijing, including refraining from labeling China a currency manipulator and striking a 100-day plan for trade talks. Some critics have cited the plan as evidence that Trump is cozying up to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But Machida, who was a top domestic policy aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney and is now a principal at media consultancy Navigators Global, said that a single deal does not mean the U.S. and China are completely aligned. "[The transition team] didn't have a full set [of] solutions for various issues [for the White House team]. U.S.-China relations, for me, is a big question mark," he said. "The deal is merely a single transaction. Personally, I think outside observers, at all times, need to be aware of what the next step will be and what it will entail."

Rebalance, not pivot

Under his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," Trump called out certain countries in Asia for running trade surpluses with the U.S. and stealing American jobs. Many observers thought Trump's election would end the American "pivot" to Asia, both in defense and economic terms, that began under former President Barack Obama.

"What we emphasised in the transition team [with regard to the U.S. defense posture] was a rebalance, not a pivot," Machida said. Machida said a pivot signaled a complete focus away from the Middle East and toward Asia, whereas a rebalance signaled a continued presence in the region together with an emphasis on Asia.

On the economic front, Machida noted that the transition team focused on getting what is best for the U.S. in its relationships with Asia and other countries. Reflecting this stance was Washington's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Trade deal, with Machida saying it is "wrong" to hope that Washington will return to the deal someday. He said the Trump administration will focus on bilateral deals in going forward.

"[With trade deals] the U.S. is always focused on the impact on the U.S. economy and jobs," Machida said. "I haven't talked directly with the president on this matter, but I think the reason why Trump prefers bilateral deals is that with multilateral negotiations, those focuses get blurred; but with bilateral talks, we can talk about what is mutually beneficial."

Continued Machida: "Trade deals are meaningless unless they result in American jobs. Our priority is 'Make America Great Again,' not 'Make the World Great Again.' Making America great again will lead to making the world great again." 

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