East Asia is not the Middle East –Donald Trump learns the hard way

Let me point out from the outset that I wouldn’t ordinarily write on East Asia, it is a region I would never claim to understand. However moments avail themselves where one shares close and informative discussions with experts from various parts of the world, in my case I shared such a moment with an expert from East Asia. Consequently I decided to write this article which juxtapose the United States (US) President Donald Trump’s politics in the Middle East, a region I have been observing and studying, with his politics in East Asia.

The rashly organised meeting that was scheduled for 12 June 2018 between the US and the North Korea has been cancelled. President of the US Donald Trump made the surprise announcement on 24 May 2018. The cancellation comes after months of positive political dialogues between the US, North Korea and South Korea. The dialogues in this regard where kickstarted notably amongst others by the election of President Moon Jae-In in South Korea. His election campaign pivoted around his desire to achieve peace with North Korea. The signing of the Panmunjom Declaration on 27 April 2018 by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean President Kim Jong-un marked yet another milestone in the process. The declaration agree to halt hostilities and promise to further multilateral talks to formalize a peace treaty within the year. Face-to-face meetings between the leaders of the two Koreas preceded the declaration. The historic hand shakes between Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim at the demilitarized zone at the border of North and South Korea was followed by another memorable moment. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang, North Korea. Mr. Pompeo also secured and returned to the US with three US citizens who were imprisoned in North Korea. Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song were arrested about a year ago and Kim Dong Chul-in 2015. They were all accused of anti-North Korea activities.

It all looked and seems well for a while but those in the know argue that the planned summit was doomed from the beginning. They say the plans for the summit were hastened and failed to follow necessary protocols which could have guaranteed a successful meeting. Moreover, soon after the announcement of the summit on 08 March 2018 reports emerged that Trump bypassed his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in making the decision. Tillerson has not been convinced that the time was right for the meeting to take place. According to CNN, “Rex Tillerson said, less than a day before the announcement that conditions were not yet ripe for negotiations with North Korea”. There were also reports further suggesting that Trump jumped the gun and stunned all parties involved in this regard, particularly North Korea and indeed their greatest ally and powerful neighbor China. According to the Business Reporter Trump reportedly agreed to meet Kim Jong-un immediately after South Korean officials floated the idea during their visit to the White House on 08 March 2018 and he wanted them to announce it right away.

The cracks to a successful summit began emerging when China “summoned” Kim Jong-un to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 25 March 2018. The meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Kim was meant to rein in North Korea. How can North Korea allow a public announcement of such importance without consulting China? Unbeknown to China at the time that North Korea was not consulted on the summit neither including its timelines. The meeting was also meant to dim the limelight on Trump who went on a public relations spree on his great political achievement in the process. The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Xi was a wake up call for Trump it highlighted an important fact, East Asia is not the Middle East. Politics of East Asia are totally different to those of the Middle “where Trump has done as he pleased since his election”. There are political players without whom any outside interventions hardly succeed. Whereas in the Middle East, which consists of a number of clients states to the US including Egypt, Jordan, Israel etc. East Asia has strong independent states which do not share block thinking that is induced by the US’s “Deep Pocket” foreign policy.

Secondly, “China is not Saudi Arabia, it will not dance to the tune of the US whenever the music plays”. It will never allow the US to scoop such a historic moment. If any peace is to be achieved between the two Koreas, it has to be facilitated by China. China will never allow Donald Trump to busk in glory in the region, it is common sense that the US should have anticipated. At best China might allow the two Koreas to drive the process themselves without the involvement of the US.

The US has historically involved regional power when dealing with Israeli-Palestine Conflict, Egypt, Jordan and recently Saudi Arabia have been part and parcel of the peace process. Why did Donald Trump think he could achieve this important milestone without involving privately and publicly the regional powerhouse China? It was a miscalculation, a move which was going to backfire on Trump at some point.

Finally and perhaps most importantly. North Korea is an important trump card for China. Mr. Kim’s nuclear threat to the region and indeed the world renders China more important in global politics. China is the only country that can rein in Kim Jong-un it will never give up that leverage.

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Thembisa Fakude

Senior Research Fellow Africa Asia Dialogues, Johannesburg, SA Research Fellow Al Sharq Forum, Istanbul, Turkiye Columnist, Middle East Monitor, London UK.