From the G7 dust up in Quebec, the photo-op of the century in Singapore, the shambolic NATO summit in Brussels followed by hard-Brexiteering in London and his Helsinki tete-a-tete with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom some increasingly suspect as his ‘handler,’ Donald J. Trump has been on a roll, inadvertently reshuffling the strategic landscape linking Europe and Asia. By aggressively widening the gap in transatlantic relations by waging a trade war against allies on top of exiting the Iran nuclear deal and threatening secondary sanctions should their companies continue business with Tehran, Europe moves ever closer toward strategic autonomy. And in Trump’s imagination, NATO is worse than NAFTA! One might say, the post-alliance transatlantic era has arrived.
With Singapore having concluded in an amicable “exchange of opinions” out of Trump’s summitry antics with North Korea linked to the seemingly growing Pyongyang-Seoul rapprochement, in tandem with caucusing between North Korea and China, the other end of the Eurasian landmass in East Asia looks increasingly in geo-strategic play as well. After all, apart from what had been his off-on again tete-a-tete with Kim Jong Un, Trump had already unilaterally been broaching another ‘America First’ impulse: winding down America’s troop presence in South Korea – which he may want to do in Germany as well.
This impulse re-emerged in Singapore. It was not clear if it was part of a mutual confidence building trade-off in an ongoing Trump-Kim ‘denuclearizing’ dialogue flowing from Singapore. In fact, Singapore appeared a ‘one-way street’ with Trump announcing suspension of naval exercises with broader ultimate implications for the integrity of the US-Japan defence alliance. Depending on how such unilateral suspensions and draw-downs are implemented, Trump’s impulses could potentially reinforce Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda to change Japan’s pacifist constitution. This is not something Japan’s former involuntary participants in its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere would contemplate with much enthusiasm.
On the other hand, Japan’s neighbors aren’t enthusiastic about China’s Indo-Pacific agenda in and around the East and South China Seas either – including the Taiwan Straits. Yet, uncertainties arising from these cascading Trumpianisms could possibly be more than offset by new inter-East Asian regional economic cooperation emerging out of Moon-Kim-Trump summitry dynamics. Through its ‘trade war’ coercive diplomacy aimed at China and Europe, the incoherent economic nationalism of the Trump-Wilber Ross-Larry Kudlow-Steve Mnuchin-Peter Navarro posse does geostrategic-economic wonders for China. Beijing is much better and more disciplined at playing the ‘long game’ than Washington.
Although Chairman Kim may have recalibrated his priorities from having achieved North Korea’s nuclear weapons state status, now wishing to refocus on economic nation-building, he really needs no transactional ‘art of the deal’ from Trump to incentivize denuclearization; this is especially so when Trump had pretty much conceded what was already limited leverage by triumphally boasting how ‘maximum pressure’ had already delivered a denuked North Korea, proclaiming in ‘mission accomplished’ fashion that Pyongyang was no longer a nuclear threat! Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent Pyongyang visit provides a reality check.
There is no returning to multilateral ‘maximum pressure’ on North Korea that Beijing or anyone else will bandwagon with Washington as there will be no multilateral nuclear ‘better deal’ with Iran recognized by anyone outside the likes of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Now Trump, with midterm elections looming is dictating to OPEC to lower oil prices that arose partially in consequence of his pulling the US out of the Iran deal.
Both North Korea and Iran are willing Belt-Road candidates for joining China’s trans-Eurasian jamboree linking Europe and Asia, while North Korea could also likely figure in an ASEAN+3 equation with South Korea and Japan as well as China. Iran is an observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization pending full membership which could conceivably extend to Pyongyang as well.
North Korea could also find its way into the China-backed Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership as a counterpoise to Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump exited, mainly to spite Obama at America’s geoeconomic expense as it was Trump’s notion of a ‘bad deal’! Indeed, the anti-Obama dimension will be elaborated on at a later date in terms of exploring how the US and its foreign policy establishment is grappling with managing inevitable superpower relative decline.
Suffice for now to point out that Trump, mascarading ‘strength’ for what in reality is ‘weakness,’ accelerates America’s relative decline by quickening the pace of multipolarity on Russian terms. By sharpening divisions between the US and its allies on issues of sanctions (Iran) and trade (tariffs), the real element anchoring American hegemony, the US Dollar, could well face erosion as the world’s premier reserve currency. It is perhaps this factor – the USD -- more than military ‘might makes right’ that cements the hegemony of the Land of the ‘Free’ and the Home of the ‘Brave.’ Back to North Korea: why does Pyongnang need USD in financing its way out of economic pariah status when there is a basket of currencies within the Plus 3 of the ASEAN Economic Community? Namely, China’s yuan, Japan’s Yen and South Korea’s Won? And Iran, for its part, will trade with China in yuan.
Trump, thus, lends impetus to the ‘local currency’ multipolarity of the global financial architecture at the expense of the US Dollar, a major fundamental motivating factor that gave rise to the BRIC in 2009 which became BRICS in 2011. So while the EU is being forced into consolidating its post-transatlantic alliance autonomy on the western end of Afro-Eurasia, the normalizing of North Korea could consolidate the geo-strategic identity of ASEAN+3 on Eurasia’s far eastern extremity. Don’t write off BRICS just yet!
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and a past fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy.