Through his newfound friendship with China President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump isn’t the first one in the job who thinks he can handle adversaries better than his predecessors. And he is likely to be just as successful.
We might be looking at the Asian equivalent of George W. Bush looking into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and ‘getting a sense of his soul,’ or perhaps the Obama Administration’s ‘reset’ with Putin.
Trump is an experienced negotiator, so he’s aware that it’s helpful if both parties to a deal have ‘converging objectives,’ actually want to reach an agreement, and will make necessary concessions. The US wants a denuclearized North Korea and believes Beijing must want the same thing. But maybe China doesn’t?
There is scant evidence over 25 years that China wants to help out with North Korea — even though it could shut down the Pyongyang regime in a week.
This suggests we should consider that Washington and Beijing have ‘diverging objectives’ not only over North Korea but China’s interest in dominating northeast Asia and undermining US alliances.
So as America fixates on a North Korea without nuclear weapons or ICBMs, perhaps consider that such a goal just isn’t as important in Beijing?
Hence, China never quite delivers on the American requests and meantime improves its strategic and tactical position in the wider Asia Pacific region at US expense.
Ironically, China has always been clear about it’s broader and ultimate objective — to displace the United States from its leading role in Asia.
Playing for time
One need only listen to what the People’s Republic of China says and writes — not to mention what it does. Successive US administrations have simply chosen not to believe them.
Timing matters in negotiations. President Xi is vulnerable during the run up to the 19th Party Congress in autumn 2017 – and dearly wants to avoid trouble with the Americans.
A top-notch negotiator knows this is the time to push hard for China’s help with North Korea. After the Party Congress and if Xi gets his people in place, China will be far less inclined to strike a deal — or at least one the Americans want.
Xi only needs to play for time, and with the proper mix of flattery and ‘bait’ looks like he might succeed.
Trump’s recent claim of having a “very good personal relationship” with Xi and that China’s president “is doing everything in his power to help (with North Korea)” suggests Xi has done a good job of handling the master negotiator in the White House.
Look at evidence
The Trump Administration might ask what its recent concessions towards China have produced in return.
After some initial stern talk aimed at Beijing, President Trump has laid off talk of tariffs and sanctions, kowtowed on the One China Policy, and snubbed Taiwan and its democratically elected President.
Indeed, shabby treatment of Taiwan — which is a clear example that Chinese can do quite well under an elected democratic government — suggests to Beijing that all of America’s principles are negotiable.
And while smooth talking Trump, look at what President Xi is doing to America’s allies in the region.
Beijing bullies and threatens South Korea and is even publicly talking about military strikes against THAAD missile defence systems in the country that are manned by US troops.
China demonizes Japan, another American ally, and tightens the noose around Japanese territory in the East China Sea.
Meantime, Taiwan receives threats, berating, and economic pressure from Beijing.
If history lessons about the Korean peninsula are needed to guide US negotiating strategy, Trump might do better for advice than to rely on the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
Trump has some excellent — not to mention American — advisors on his staff or otherwise available. Though he ought to question advice from anyone who has been making money off of China — past or present — or hopes to do so in the future.
In this regard, a certain former Harvard professor comes to mind. His negotiating skills laid the groundwork for 45 years of accommodating Beijing. That’s led to today’s situation where China has all but seized the South China Sea and is on the verge of displacing US influence in the region.
Indeed, this gentleman’s other negotiating masterwork was the Vietnam peace accords, which within two years had North Vietnamese tanks knocking down the gates of the US Embassy in Saigon.
Follow his advice, as seems to be happening, and the Trump Administration may find itself negotiating ‘peace with honor’ as it skulks out of Asia.
If Trump is going to have any success he’ll do well to note the following: When negotiating with the Chinese, assuming of course success is desired, operate from a position of strength and be willing to walk away from the table.
The US currently has a strong hand to play towards Beijing over North Korea, and ought to play it.
Finally, instead of The Art of the Deal as one’s negotiating guide, a more useful book is Admiral C. Turner Joy’s How Communists Negotiate.
This is based on his experiences helping negotiate the Korean War Armistice. And keep in mind the North Koreans learned about negotiating from the Chinese.
If Trump doesn’t heed Admiral Joy’s advice or listen to more sober and untainted advisors about dealing with China, he’ll do well to revise the next printing of The Art of the Deal and include Rudyard Kipling’s line, ‘A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.’
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.