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'Amateurish' Trump may try to tough talk Xi on trade

Administration is lacking staff, expertise ahead of April summit, professor says

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump may try to make up for a dismal first few months in office by taking a tough stance on trade when he meets his Chinese counterpart in April, according to University of Tokyo professor Fumiaki Kubo. 

Speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review, Kubo, an expert on American politics, pointed to Trump's numerous domestic policy failures and lack of major diplomatic successes since taking office in January. He also highlighted a worrying lack of experts in the administration ahead of the U.S.-China summit slated for April.

Excerpts from the interview follow. 

Q: What is your evaluation of Trump's policy management so far?

A: He seems too amateurish to govern the U.S. District courts have twice blocked his attempts to ban people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. He made the decision on those bans unilaterally, without consulting with immigration authorities or deliberating enough with members of his administration. The U.S. has never had a president so lacking in self-discipline.

Trump has underestimated Capitol Hill, as his failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare clearly shows. Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but he still cannot win the backing of his own party.

Q: How does the Trump administration compare with those in the past?

Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo, says Trump has "underestimated Capitol Hill."

A: The appointment of core administration officials has been extremely slow. While heads have been chosen for the Department of State and other departments, some still lack deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries.

The absence of a "playmaker" is another problem. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, chief strategist and assistant to the president, are ineffective coordinators and are unable to control the president.

Q: How do you assess the Japan-U.S. summit in February?

A: The results for Japan were more favorable than expected, such as Trump's affirmation that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty covers the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. On the campaign trail, Trump often sounded like an isolationist, but he respected the traditional alliance at the summit. Although Trump may later abandon something he has said only once, the inclusion of the affirmation in the joint statement is meaningful. For now, it is safe to say Japan has gotten everything it wants.

It was important to hold the summit as early as February, given the concerns about a possible Chinese invasion of Japan's territorial waters. But I don't think Trump fully understood U.S.-Japan relations, because he was still reading awkwardly from a cheat sheet.

Q: As he did with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump is expected to invite Chinese President Xi Jinping to his Florida estate for a summit on April 6-7.

A: A U.S.-China summit would have a much greater impact than the Japan-U.S. one in terms of influence on Asia. According to Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, the staff of Trump's administration didn't respond to Japanese proposals for the Japan-U.S. summit and only gave the go-ahead for the meeting at the last moment.

The U.S. administration still does not have an assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, as Trump is preoccupied with internal affairs, so it may be fair to say that the administration hasn't decided on its China policy yet.

China is expected to demand even bigger fruits than what Japan gained at its summit. But the situation has changed since February. At that time, the U.S. administration was short of staff members in charge of trade issues. That meeting was like an All-Japan baseball team running up the score against a U.S. side that didn't even have nine players.

It would be good for Xi if he was a golfer like Abe, but I have never heard of him playing the game.

It is uncertain whether Trump will try to set the stage for a good U.S.-China relationship or whether he will take a tough stance. Given his domestic support base, it's highly likely he will try to attack China on trade issues.

Interviewed by Nikkei Asian Review deputy editor Kazuki Shoji

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