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Opinion

Trump and Asia -- more reasons to worry

China trade war remains top priority, little sign Kim summit will bring breakthrough

This -- Trump's divisive politics flowed through the speech.   © Reuters

Much of the world, not least Asia, was looking to Donald Trump's third State of the Union speech for clues about the direction of U.S. policy during the final two years of his controversial presidential term.

The speech, his first since the midterm elections yielded a divided government as the Democratic opposition won the House of Representatives, was vintage Trump, full of bombast and boasts about his success in everything from the American economy to fighting Islamic State terrorists.

But, for his counterparts in Beijing, Tokyo or New Delhi, there was little that was new or reassuring. If they felt disturbed by the first half of the Trump presidency they should prepare to be equally disturbed in the second.

On foreign matters, there was little in the speech to assuage global doubts. On trade, Trump sang the praises of tariffs, not least those imposed on China. Interestingly, he said of the new trade deal being negotiated with Beijing that it must include more than a Chinese buying spree to reduce the U.S. trade deficit.

He said, "... it must include real structural change to end unfair trade practices," a reference to opening its markets to foreign investment, intellectual property theft, mercantilist industrial policies and coerced tech transfer.

China's own need to implement market-opening reforms to sustain growth overlaps with many of these U.S. demands. Economic logic suggests that Beijing should adopt a course that would move toward rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, thus enabling a deal. However, president Xi Jinping's increased state-centric Communist Party control indicates that domestic political logic may be pulling in a contrary direction.

In what may reinforce fears in the EU and Japan, Trump called for passage of the U.S. Reciprocal Tariff Act, which, contrary to World Trade Organization rules, would automatically impose equal retaliatory tariffs if the U.S. decided a nation's tariffs were too high.

Trump has left on the table the possibility of imposing 25% auto tariffs on the EU and Japan, which would disrupt supply chains. In both cases, the U.S. is making demands for trade agreements that neither Brussels nor Tokyo are prepared to accept.

Meanwhile, he urged Congress to approve the very modest changes he has negotiated to NAFTA which he called a "catastrophe." The accord, now renamed the U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA), faces bipartisan concerns. But, for Asian policymakers in search of hope, the fact that Trump accepted only minor changes to the NAFTA accord he so often maligned suggest that in other trade conflicts too he is open to compromise.

On geopolitical issues, Trump stoked concerns about both U.S. retrenchment and a new nuclear arms race. He underscored his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria to end protracted wars. "Great nations," Trump proclaimed, "do not fight endless wars." Trump defended his decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty due to Russian violations but left the door open to negotiating "a different agreement."

By that he means multilateralizing it, by adding China. But China which possesses hundreds of INF missiles is unlikely to agree to any such restraint. U.S. allies in Asia as well as Europe, fear the demise of the INF Treaty will presage a new, unconstrained arms race. The START 2 accord, which limits the U.S. and Russia to 1500 warheads expires in 2020, and as Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton have an aversion to limits on U.S. sovereignty, there is concern it will not be extended, sparking a new global arms race.

The one real bit of news in the speech was, of course, the widely-expected announcement on North Korea, as Trump revealed the dates -- February 27-28 -- for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Like much of the speech, however, Trump offered an exaggerated view of the problems, then offering an exaggerated view of Trump success in solving them. "If I had not been elected President of the United States, Trump triumphantly proclaimed, "we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea."

This is an absurd claim. In fact, it was Trump's ramping up of rhetoric with "Little Rocket Man" in a war of words with Kim and incendiary threats of "fire and fury," that manufactured a sense of crisis.

In reality, U.S. deterrence has worked well over the past 70 years and continues to do so. Moreover, since the Trump-Kim Summit last June in Singapore there has not only been no progress in denuclearization. Indeed, U.S. intelligence chief Dan Coats told Congress recently, there is evidence that North Korea is quietly continuing work on its nuclear and missile programs. Coats added bluntly that the U.S. intelligence community judgment is that Kim is unlikely to give up nuclear weapons.

Trump's depiction of the North Korea problem and his heroic role in solving it seems emblematic of the grand sense of political theater and tenuous grasp of reality reflected in the speech.

Nor was there much in the rest of the speech that could encourage foreign policymakers to think that Trump, even at this late stage, is interested in building a domestic consensus on foreign policy, or anything else.

Admittedly, the beginning and the end somewhat surreally featured time-honored State of the Union (SOTU) calls for national unity, "Together we can break decades of political stalemate," Trump inveighed.

Trump used the 75th anniversary of D-Day to honor veterans brought for show, into the Congressional chamber. He even highlighted rare bipartisan acts, for example, a recent Prison Justice Reform bill, and found issues Democrats would favor -- lowering health care costs, fighting HIV AIDS. And he called for "compromise" on his contentious border wall plan.

But in between such noble gestures were the usual divisive issues designed to energize his political base -- curbing illegal immigration to stop "the onslaught of drug and human traffickers," building more border walls, legislation to end late-term abortions, deriding "socialism," and deriding "freeloading" U.S. allies.

The upshot is, home and abroad, expect mostly more of the same in the final two years of Trump's presidency.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-12. Tweet: @Rmanning4

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