Embracing the unpredictableExperts scramble to decipher the meaning every time U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump turns to his Twitter account to bluntly speak his mind on current affairs, a practice that helped him immensely on the campaign trail. He still sticks to it as a president-in-waiting.
To conventional minds, it is not easy to nail down the gist of his ambiguously-worded missives. He wrote, “It won’t happen!” about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, in which he claimed Pyongyang was in the final stage of testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, possibly with nuclear warheads capable of reaching parts of the U.S. In a follow-up taunt aiming this time at Beijing, Trump said, “China has been taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”
Some interpreted the pair of tweets as a warning to Pyongyang about a preemptive attack, while others deemed he would pressure Beijing to find a solution to the North Korean problem or go his own way to negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang.
Trump, whose confidence has been built through bold and successful deal-making throughout his business career, does not think in the traditional way. He has been consistent in doing things in unconventional and unpredictable ways. He made it official that his foreign policy would be unpredictable. “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable,” he said, and pledged to resort to “the element of surprise.”
When asked whether he as president would bomb Iran’s nuclear sites instead of sticking to the agreed nuclear deal with Tehran, he answered, “I want to be unpredictable.” His so-called courtesy call to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen — the first direct contact between the two governments in 40 years after Washington kept to a “One China” policy in return for normalizing ties with Beijing — appears to have been carefully planned as part of a series of actions aimed at getting the upper hand with Beijing.
Trump casually said the U.S. Navy should let the Chinese “keep it” after the Pentagon announced a drone had been seized by the Chinese during a mission collecting scientific data in the South China Sea. In five days, the drone was returned. Trump was not just bluffing. He would have known that Beijing dared not challenge Washington’s warning not to enter or touch the U.S. spy aircraft that made an emergency landing on Hainan Island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese interceptor fighter jet in 2001.
Seoul authorities should make note that although his critics jeer at Trump’s tweeting policy, his supporters take his messages seriously. His intentionally ambiguous wording would have his aides in the White House and traditional bureaucrats in Washington compete over building policies.
As surrogates for a trade doctrine that unquestionably prioritizes U.S. jobs and benefits, Trump placed outspoken Chinese critic Peter Navarro — author of books like “The Coming China Wars: Where They will Be Fought, How They Can be Won” and “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World” — as the head of a new National Trade Council in charge of designing Trump’s trade and economic policy.
Trump also appointed Wilbur Ross Jr., a billionaire investor who built riches through purchases of steel mills in fire sales, as the Commerce Secretary, and Robert Lighthizer as the U.S Trade Representative, who as a deputy trade representative under Ronald Reagan fought against the tide of imports from Japan in the 1980s through threats of quotas and punitive tariffs.
The White House will be dominated by industry experts for the first time. Trump blames China for wiping out 50,000 factories and 25 million jobs in the U.S. and stealing $360 billion worth of technologies. He threatens tariffs of 45 percent on Chinese imports and dares to keep Chinese companies from coming near U.S. technology. But 30 percent of $2.5 trillion output and 28,000 enterprises in Silicon Valley are reliant on Chinese capital.
Trump’s trade doctrine stems from the secret desires of America’s working class. Under President Barack Obama, 11.3 million jobs were created. But Americans were nevertheless thrilled when Trump stopped air conditioner maker Carrier from moving 1,100 factory jobs from Indiana to Mexico. He warned of punitive tariffs of 35 percent if plants are moved overseas.
Toyota shares plunged 3 percent after Trump threatened the foreign carmaker with cross-border tariffs on the automobiles produced in a plant under construction in Mexico. Ford cancelled a plan to build a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico and instead pledged a $600 million investment in Michigan to add 700 jobs. Fiat-Chrysler also succumbed to Trump’s strong-arming ways and promised a $1 billion investment.
His blunt and coercive strategy effectively worked on foreign businesses. SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son pledged to invest $50 billion in the U.S. to create 50,000 new jobs and Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma promised to bring one million jobs to the U.S. Shares of the Japanese and Chinese companies listed on the U.S. bourse gained 6 percent and 1 percent respectively.
The only visitor to Washington from Korea after Trump’s triumph was Kim Kwan-jin, chief of our National Security Office. Korea’s top
business heads are too preoccupied with questioning by the independent counsel investigating the unprecedented influence-peddling scandal involving the president and her inner circle. Son and Ma are bold entrepreneurs. But we see little of such entrepreneurship from Korean conglomerates, whose third or fourth-generation heirs even stumble to keep the status quo in their inherited business empire.
Korea has invested $31.7 billion in the U.S. and created 18,530 jobs there since it struck a free trade deal with the U.S. Korea must underscore that the U.S. trade surplus in the services sector has ballooned by $10 billion and the country is the largest exporter of arms to Korea with an estimated $7.8 billion.
A passive mindset like that of Chang Myung-jin, the chief of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration who said Seoul would inevitably have to comply if Washington demands we pay a bigger share of the cost of maintaining U.S. troops, does not help the country’s position. We are bound to lose if we keep to predictable ways in an unpredictable order.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 17, Page 31
*The author, a former minister of trade and the UN ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, is a member of the WTO Appellate Body and professor of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.