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Interview

John Bolton says Trump botched handling of Hong Kong

Lack of coordination on China policy gave Xi Jinping 'free hand'

John Bolton told Nikkei that if reelected, President Donald Trump may cut defense spending and compromise with China.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration did not have a coordinated, coherent China policy, which ultimately may have given Chinese President Xi Jinping an opening to advance on Hong Kong, former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton told Nikkei in an interview Tuesday.

Bolton, who released last month his tell-all book "The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir," described President Donald Trump's decision-making as heavily driven by domestic political motivations and said that if Trump is reelected and the political "guardrail" is gone, he may compromise with China to secure a "big trade deal."

The hawkish foreign policy expert also said Trump may very well seek a fourth meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in October, just ahead of the U.S. presidential election.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How would you characterize the Trump administration's China policy?

A: We did not have a coordinated, coherent China policy, largely because Trump saw almost everything regarding China through an economics prism, a trade focus. I do think trade is important.

But trade policy was really not coordinated at all, and it made it very difficult to take into account noneconomic issues, like what China is doing in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, its military buildup, and its capabilities in cyberspace and elsewhere.

So, all of these things made it hard to look at the geopolitical arrangement and made it almost impossible to talk about human rights issues like the Uighurs and Hong Kong.

Q: In your memoir, you say President Xi discussed the protest movement in Hong Kong and told President Trump that outside forces should refrain from interfering in the territory's affairs. You wrote that Trump literally accepted this argument. If he had resisted Xi's argument, do you think the U.S. could have prevented Hong Kong's autonomy being compromised?

A: I think it's possible. I think Xi Jinping came away from those discussions, several discussions over a several-year period, thinking he basically had a free hand, and although Trump has taken very strong measures because of what's happening in Hong Kong with the end of the "one country, two systems" policy and because of the repressive measures against the Uighurs, that has more to do with the coronavirus than anything else.

It's now well understood in the U.S. and elsewhere that China lied about the origins of the pandemic, lied about its consequences, did a lot of concealing of information, and that Trump's response to it was inadequate. So, he's now tough on China, as it's politically advantageous. Whether he will remain so if he's reelected, we don't know.

Q: If President Trump were to be reelected, do you think he would continue to prioritize trade issues, rather than national security or human rights?

A: One of the characteristics of Trump's decision-making is that political factors -- U.S. political factors -- play a much more important role than foreign policy decisions. Once he's freed of the need to be reelected, once that "guardrail" is removed, I'm worried it will allow him to do things that in the first term he didn't do.

I'm worried about the defense budget falling in a second Trump term. I'm worried about him trying to make the "big trade deal" with China. These are of great concern to many of us.

Q: Do you think President Trump may seek a fourth summit with Kim Jong Un ahead of the presidential election?

A: Yes, I think an "October surprise" is very possible. This possibility of a fourth meeting with Kim Jong Un I think certainly would qualify as an "October surprise."

Q: How did Kim Jong Un respond to Trump's concern about the Japanese abductee issue?

A: Trump met his commitment to [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe to raise this in each meeting. I think he knows how seriously Japan takes this issue, and Prime Minister Abe in particular.

Kim Jong Un had different reactions. At one point he said, "We've really already told you everything we know about the abduction. This was during Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi's time."

At other times he just brushed it aside. We didn't get into a sense of discussions of it, and I don't think that's surprising.

Ultimately, if, in the hypothetical, we were near a nuclear deal, certainly Japan's assistance to North Korea would be a subject of intense discussion.

Everybody knows, in Japan and in North Korea, there's not going to be any Japanese assistance to North Korea unless the abductee issue is resolved. And that would be primarily in direct, bilateral negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Q: Japan has scrapped plans to deploy a land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system and has started considering offensive capabilities. Do you think Japan should acquire offensive capabilities?

A: It's ultimately Japan's decision, but I would support it. I think most Americans feel the same way.

The question of China in the 21st century, I think, is the existential question for the United States in world affairs, and therefore, with our allies, particularly those in East Asia and the Pacific, we want to be more closely linked, to deal with that.

Prime Minister Abe, for example, and others, have encouraged discussions with India, and with trilateral meetings of the three heads of state there, more discussions with Australia, with Singapore, with others. I think, not just in terms of military equipment, but in broader strategic terms, it's definitely something we need to work more on.

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