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Interview

Trump lost leverage on China and North Korea: former Obama aide

Late US efforts to convene Tokyo and Seoul contributed to nations' rift

The diplomatic roadblocks the U.S. has hit with China and North Korea are the result of U.S. President Donald Trump's "America first" policies, according to a former senior U.S. diplomat focusing on Asia.   © AP

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump, his hands full with a reelection campaign and an impeachment inquiry brewing in Congress, has lost leverage in trade talks with China and in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, according to a former senior U.S. diplomat.

"We see 'Trump first' and 'America first' over alliances, as we saw in Ukraine," said Daniel Russel, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Barack Obama. "That's disturbing and demoralizing, not only to the men and women of the U.S. government, but also to America's partners."

Political pressures have constrained the Trump administration's policy options, giving diplomats less flexibility, he said.

"My Chinese counterparts see Trump's leverage in trade talks as weakened by his political problems," Russel said. "The Chinese side continues to want a deal -- just not the terms demanded by Trump. Their willingness to give concessions has eroded since they've taken hits this year, economically and on Twitter."

Ahead of talks with Washington on Thursday and Friday, Trump added eight Chinese tech companies to a trade blacklist, accusing them of participating in human rights abuses against Muslims in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Although the move may have been meant to show that Trump still has cards to play, Beijing has lowered expectations for any progress on the trade war. New tariffs of 30% tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods will kick in next Tuesday.

A veteran diplomat who helped craft Obama's "pivot to Asia" strategy, Russel spoke with the Nikkei Asian Review during a visit to Tokyo.

Russel pointed to the quick collapse of talks between the U.S. and North Korea last week as another example of diplomatic stalemate.

"The fact that the meeting broke up in a single day proves that they were just exchanging ultimatums," he said. "The effort on the U.S. side to put a positive spin is simply trying to keep alive the fiction that Trump solved the problem in Singapore."

Breaking from his predecessors, Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last year, granting Pyongyang's long-held wish for greater international legitimacy. But the event was viewed by some experts as the U.S. conceding the prerequisite for such a high-level meeting: complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

Trump's top-down approach to North Korea has alienated allies, in Russel's view. "President Donald Trump sidelined both Japan and South Korea in dealing with Kim Jong Un," he said. "He cast aspersions on the value of the alliance and framed it in terms of, 'How much are you paying?'"

Daniel Russel was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Barack Obama.   © Reuters

The problem, Russel said, is a shift from collaborative security to America first. "Allies come to the impression that their interests are not being taken into account. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when they decide that it's every man for himself."

The breakdown of trust among the partners has manifested itself in the rift between South Korea and Japan, which Russel compared to bee stings. "Your reaction gets worse every time you're stung. The tolerance of the public in each country for the other country is eroded every time the issue flares up."

In Russel's view, the current episode was worsened by the Trump administration's disengagement from the common mission of Japan and South Korea.

"Under Obama, both sides understood that the U.S. was going to take a side -- America's side. We have a right not to tell you how to resolve legacy issues, but to insist that you park these issues for the common [security] interest," Russel said.

Most troubling to Washington are the national security decisions that have become more difficult since South Korea pulled out of an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.

"In this digital age, the response time for military and national security interests is measured in milliseconds when it comes to missile attacks. And South Korea's neighbor is constantly violating U.N. rules on ballistic missiles," he said. "To switch from an instantaneous digital sharing of data to an analog system that puts the U.S. in the middle as the mailman is a giant step back."

In his current role as vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society, Russel penned a report laying out recommendations for China's Belt and Road Initiative.

"Is the goal to block China, or to expand regional infrastructure in a sustainable way?" he said, lauding Japan's counteroffer of quality infrastructure projects. "It's good to have competition so that China isn't the only game in town. If Japan can provide a choice against unsustainable debt and environmental damage, then China will be forced to match it."

Russel also commended Japan for keeping the Trump administration at arm's length during negotiations for the recently signed bilateral trade deal. The new deal removes unpredictability for businesses and placated Trump by giving him a small victory, he said.

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