Dealing with Trump

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Dealing with Trump

The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A reporter asked U.S. President Donald Trump whether it was his negotiation strategy to be inconsistent, as he had called Chinese President Xi Jinping an enemy one day and said they were in a good relationship next day. “Sorry! It’s the way I negotiate. It’s done very well for me over the years. It’s doing very well for the country.”

At a press conference at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, in August, Trump’s negotiation style was a controversial topic. When the reporter questioned him about a U.S.-China trade war driving the global economy into uncertainty, Trump snapped defensively.

Now the outcome of the Trump-style negotiation is out. The United States and China announced the first phase of their trade agreement on Dec. 13. It’s been 17 months since tariff bombs started to be dropped on each other in July 2018. A “political victory” is more important to Trump than a substantial agreement. To claim that he had kept the campaign promise to make America great again by beating China, he chose a “small deal.” He is busy gearing up for his re-election campaign.

He needs a trophy to hold high. It is the promise made by China to buy American agricultural products in large volumes. Trump claims that China will buy $50 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products, even while China remains silent. In return, tariffs on Chinese goods have been canceled or reduced, but Trump is not mentioning them and highlights agricultural exports only.

Trump seems to be vulnerable to the “endurance” of the other side. In May, Washington and Beijing almost reached an agreement, which reflected U.S. demands more faithfully. Washington refused Beijing’s request to retract tariffs, and it reportedly included a structural reform plan to change unfair economic practices in China. But the deal broke down due to resistance among hardliners in China. China endured. When it came back to the negotiation table, China gained a tariff withdrawal. Structural reform also was removed. There is analysis that China skillfully handled Trump.

During the three years of the Trump administration, its counterparts have studied Trump’s negotiation style. They realized that Trump starts out by escalating tension with shocks and threats, but in the end, he has repeatedly concluded with very ordinary compromises. There have been many cases without much progress, such as with North Korea, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. There exists a risk of misjudgment, which can lead to an irreversible situation. Unlike a trade deal, national security has a risk of unintended and uncontrollable development. As North Korea is preparing a “Christmas present,” I am worried that it might have picked up the wrong lesson from the U.S.-China trade negotiation.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 17, Page 32
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