Monday was Memorial Day, the day America takes off to honour its war dead and celebrate the start of summer. The great and the good nowadays pay their respects via tweet. Donald Trump, neither great nor good, tweeted a tribute to himself. Referring to the ghosts of Normandy, Iwo Jima, Chosin, Ia Drang and countless other fields, he boasted how proud of him they would be for today’s economy, concluding exuberantly: “Nice!”
My point is not that he is a repellent human being. That is already well established. What interests me more is the encouraging message his twitter-spew sends to all who yearn to see America in retreat.
It confirms that the US is led by an insecure, autocratic and vainglorious man who wants to believe he is uniquely clever but in truth knows and feels no history, reads no books, cannot be briefed and is entirely self-obsessed. This is the lens through which to view the curious off-again, on-again bromance between Trump and North Korea’s uber-thug Kim Jong Un, in which China is quietly operating as matchmaker.
In his tweets, a toxic smog of bluster, lies and crank conspiracy theory, Trump is telling any sentient observer that he is in a desperate state of mind — scared of what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is turning up (and not just about the role Russia played in getting him elected), and no less worried that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in November and vote to impeach him. He is crying out for help.
One cannot blame Kim or, rather more importantly, China’s Xi Jinping, for reading things that way and making the most of it.
The fate of the Kim dynasty depends on China, today no less than it did in 1950 when Mao sent 400 000 People’s Volunteer Army conscripts to their deaths to rescue founder Kim Il Sung (the Americans lost 34 000). Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is through China. China, aspiring hegemon, wants to see US military footprint in the region shrivel and its alliances “anaesthetised”, in the phrase of Michael Green, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.
Trump has already proven himself an able geostrategic gas-passer, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership the moment he took office. He has dismayed allies far more than foes with wild threats of tariffs on steel, aluminium and cars. He has complained, ignorantly, that Seoul has not been paying adequately for the US military tripwire that guarantees it against attack from the North. In February, according to the NBC television network, he had to restrained from pulling US forces out of the Korean peninsular altogether.
If I’m Xi, I am seeing a huge opportunity here to hasten America’s abandonment of East Asia. From a position of weakness, Trump is effectively pleading with the Chinese leader to orchestrate a deal, any deal, he can use to con voters and the Nobel jury into thinking him a statesman and saving his presidency.
Xi, playing chess while Trump fumbles tiddlywinks, seeks to replace the US as South Korea’s security blanket. To that end, Beijing wants the Korean War, suspended by an armistice since 1953, officially over on terms acceptable to Pyongyang so that the rationale for a US military presence falls away and Seoul no longer sees its relationship with Washington in existential terms.
From Xi’s standpoint, Trump must be a dream come true — and he did not even have to brainwashed first in Manchuria. Helping keep him in office makes eminent sense. And of course, it he ever gets uppity about Chinese trade policy or sanctions-busting by a Chinese phone maker, he’s for sale. Just invest in a Trump-branded development somewhere or give his daughter a few more patents, and he’ll calm down nicely.