President Trump, fists cocked, landed Tuesday at the NATO summit in Brussels with an America-First determination the likes of which allies from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Britain’s Theresa May and U.S. foes such as China’s Xi Jinping have never experienced — or expected — from a U.S. leader.
Mr. Trump reiterated his demand that our allies live up financially to their mutual defense commitments because the U.S. will longer play Uncle Sap to their redistributionist economies.
The president simultaneously landed another punch on Mr. Xi, clobbering the arrogantl protectionist with yet another $200 billion in tariffs on top of the $34 billion already levied in Mr. Trump’s now clearly relentless drive to level the highly unlevel field on which we trade with friend and foe alike.
The added tariffs against China were the perfect exclamation point to the subtle warning Mr. Trump delivered to Mr. Xi in a tweet ostensibly responding to an insult North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had hurled at Mr. Trump. That came on Saturday when Mr. Kim had his foreign ministry insultingly rejected as “gangster-like” Mr. Trump’s denuclearization conditions. These called for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew 7,000 miles to present them in Pyeongyang on Saturday.
Mr. Trump, displaying a temperance he reserves for foes he’s out to co-opt, tweeted this namby-pamby sounding response: “I have confidence that Kim Jong-un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea.”
The president smartly chose to blame Mr. Xi, the one foreign leader with real power over Mr. Kim.
Obliquely referring to Mr. Xi, whom our president has been handling with the same kid-gloves approach that he’s applied lately to Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump topped off his tweet by saying, “China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese trade,” then added this final, two-word veiled warning: “Hope Not!”
This after a 1,216-word statement in which Mr. Kim’s foreign ministry asserted that “the U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization [that runs] counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks. We thought that the U.S. side would come with a constructive proposal which accords with the spirit of the [Kim-Trump] summit meeting and talks. But expectation and hope of ours were so naive as to be foolish.”
The low-decibel Trump response that pointed a finger at China was perfect.
While avoiding a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula and still keeping alive the ever-more-remote possibility of successful denuclearization, Mr. Trump hinted he has something up his custom-made sleeve. That something will make Mr. Xi regret having squeezed Mr. Kim into crossing the U.S.
The reality is that China is the only country on the planet willing to breathe oxygen into Mr. Kim’s self-asphyxiating economy. If Mr. Xi says “denuclearize,” it’s a good bet that Mr. Kim says, “How fast?”
Now, the way to play the China card is to sanction the Xi apparatus into the ground while avoiding a horrific military confrontation with North Korea. On this several China hands agree.
“Going after the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China would be Trump’s strongest non-military punch,” says Steve Yates, a Mandarin-speaker who was deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Concretely, this means that Mr. Trump can hand down what are essentially death sentences on all of the so-called Big Four Chinese banks for their role in laundering money for Pyongyang, as China expert Gordon Chang suggests.
“After Trump does that, Xi Jinping will have no choice but to abandon the North,” Mr. Chang adds.
Well, maybe. No one expects anything close to mathematical certainty in predicting the behavior of a leader like Mr. Xi — or one like Mr. Trump, for that matter. But it’s worth a try, especially since Mr. Xi is already under intense pressure from a multibillion-dollar tariffs war with the U.S.
Mr. Trump started the war on the highly plausible proposition that, since Beijing’s exports-dependent economy is far weaker and more vulnerable than the U.S. economy, Mr. Xi will say “uncle” first and agree to lower, fairer tariffs on imports from the U.S.
In other words, Mr. Trump appears to be preparing to make it clear to the Chinese that they can do business with either the U.S. or North Korea but not both at the same time.
And if Mr. Trump’s pushback requires an additional shove, he can do something else that Mr. Kim and Mr. Xi will not like: Restart joint military exercises with South Korea.
The Republican National Committee, whose actions Beijing watches carefully, is expected to back Mr. Trump’s historically aggressive China-trade policy at its summer meeting next week in Austin.
Two senior RNC members — Communist-China-born Solomon Yue of Oregon and Bruce Ash of Arizona — have submitted a resolution to have the GOP’s national governing body officially support “a continuing aggressive trade policy towards China.”
Mr. Yue thinks going after Mr. Kim’s biggest banks is a killer idea. He’s right.
Getting down to specifics, Mr. Chang says Mr. Trump can have Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin either fine the banks or designate them “primary money laundering concerns” pursuant to Section 311 of the Patriot Act.
That would mean they would no longer be able to maintain correspondent banking relationships in the U.S., which means they would have to forget about conducting transactions in dollars.
“For an international bank, that is a death sentence,” Mr. Chang says, going so far as to predict that a “death sentence on a major Chinese institution would rock the Chinese banking and financial sectors and perhaps tip the fragile Chinese economy over the edge. The Communist Party might not survive.”
As plans of action and goal-setting go, these sound pretty good, especially if they’re what Mr. Trump has up that sleeve.
⦁ Ralph Z. Hallow, the chief political correspondent of commentary, served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation fellow in urban journalism at Northwestern University and resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar.
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