Trump’s strategy in Asia: Weapons sales as diplomacy

In meeting with those on the frontline of potential North Korean missiles, the president is addressing trade deficits by promoting arms sales to Japan and South Korea.

President Donald Trump, left,  and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.  (CREDIT: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)
President Donald Trump, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (CREDIT: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

President Donald Trump’s visit to four Asian countries — currently underway, with the president in South Korea on Tuesday — was promoted by the White House as a lot of things: a sign of enduring commitment to the region, an opportunity to reshape trade relations with Japan and China, and a chance to reassure South Korea that the United States is committed to a peaceful solution in seeking to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Although he’s been far less bombastic on North Korea on this trip, hinting that diplomatic gains are being made (despite his earlier objections to such efforts and claims that talking to Pyongyang will be “a waste of time”) Trump has mostly pushed for the sale of American weapons — much as he did in May when he visited Saudi Arabia (following President Barack Obama’s playbook).

In Japan, where he arrived over the weekend, Trump chose to address the $69 billion trade deficit between that country and the United States by urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to buy American weapons in order to create more jobs in the United States. According to Bloomberg News:

In a joint press briefing with Abe in Tokyo on Monday, Trump hailed the U.S.-Japan alliance even as he called for a reduction in the trade gap between the countries. Trump reeled off several possibilities, including missile-defense systems, missiles and F-35 fighter jets. ‘One of the things I think is very important is the prime minister is going to be purchasing massive amounts of military equipment, as he should,’ Trump said. ‘It’s a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan.’

Abe also said that Japan is buying F-35A jets as well as sea-based anti-missile equipment, although it’s unclear if there would be new purchases or if Congress has cleared any additional weapons for sale. Still, selling weapons would not constitute a foreign policy win for Trump, said William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

“They might be propaganda wins for his base — some of them. First of all, a lot of the stuff he’s talked about was already negotiated under Obama, so he has this penchant for claiming credit for stuff that he didn’t do, and this is an example of that,” said Hartung. While Trump might well want to sell Japan more extensive missile defense systems, said Hartung, he brought it about in “an awkward way.”

“Normally when they do these things, they talk in advance, they agree on what’s to be sold, they make a joint announcement — the U.S. president doesn’t just spout off and say, ‘Oh, you should just buy this stuff,’ so that leads me to believe that this was partly for a domestic audience, to show that he’s out there, getting good deals for the U.S.,” he said.

This, he said, is Trump’s “main foreign policy point.”

“When he went to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip, he claimed he had a package for $110 billion in arms sales, and that it would be ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ for the United States. And when some of us looked into it, it was the same thing — a lot of the stuff was cleared under Obama, a lot of it was speculative, so not that he won’t sell some things, but he tends to routinely exaggerate how much he’s going to sell.”

No major policies or deals were announced on the first leg of the trip, with Abe deflecting “questions on trade ties” and instead focusing “on praising Trump for his commitment to the defense alliance,” reports Bloomberg. In addition to pushing weapons on Japan — which he called a country of “samurai warriors” that should have shot North Korean missiles out of the sky in August — Trump also seemed entirely unaware of the fact that 75 percent of the Japanese brand cars sold in the United States are manufactured are also made in the United States. “Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over,” he said.

As far as the F-35s — the most advanced U.S. combat aircraft — that Japan had already agreed to buy from the United States? They also won’t be creating many jobs here.

“The deal is they’re going to assemble them in Japan. So Trump’s bragging about all these jobs he’s going to bring to the U.S. and meanwhile, our biggest arms sale to Japan is for them to build aircraft over there, so the production jobs will be over there, primarily,” said Hartung, adding, “he might not even be aware of that, I mean, it wasn’t even his deal.”

A similar pitch in South Korea was met with enthusiasm by President Moon Jae-in, who, according to the Korea Times, said, the two had “agreed to start talks on South Korea’s acquisition and development of state-of-the-art military surveillance assets.” He added, “This is necessary to improve South Korea’s own defense capabilities and the joint defense capabilities of the two nations.” Trump, meanwhile, stayed on message with his weapons-equals-jobs line in saying that “South Korea will be ordering billions of dollars of that equipment, which, frankly, for them makes a lot of sense and for us it means jobs, it means reducing our trade deficit with South Korea.”

However, whatever arms or equipment anyone agrees to buy on this trip, it can take years — as many as five — before jets or major systems can be delivered. That means that promoting any new sales as a means to fight North Korea (a crisis for which, the administration keeps reminding the public, we’re “running out of time”) is essentially a non-starter.

“Part of his message might be, ‘if you want us to protect you, you have to buy our stuff’ — and that may be persuasive some people,” said Hartung. This might be as close as Trump gets to building partnerships in the region rather than building diplomatic strategies.

“He might be seizing this moment and perhaps exploiting security problems to accelerate U.S. arms sales rather than thinking of things like, ‘does threatening to wipe North Korea off the map serve our security interests,'” said Hartung, adding, “It’s almost like he’s generating some of the insecurity that he’s turning around and trying to capitalize on,” perhaps unconsciously.

And what about that free-trade agreement Trump was so anxious to scrap at one point? The Korea Times says Moon and Trump agreed to “speed up ongoing renegotiations” of the deal,  but no timetable or details were made public on this front.

It remains to be seen if the president will pursue a similar line when in China, where he will face a tough audience with President Xi Jinping, whose country has a closer relationship with North Korea and is unlikely to give Trump a major win on any trade-related matter. The state-run Xinhua news agency has struck a positive tone in anticipation of Trump’s visit there, touting “win-win” outcomes of economic cooperation between the two countries, while the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post wonders why the Trump administration seems to have redrawn regional maps:

US President Donald Trump will offer a clearer picture on why he and other senior White House officials have begun referring to the Asia-Pacific as the “Indo-Pacific” by the end of his 12-day, five-nation tour of the region, Washington’s envoy in Tokyo said on Tuesday….The use of the term was a departure from language employed by previous administrations, and has led to speculation that it could have to do with Washington softening the ground for a revival of the so-called Quadrilateral strategic alliance consisting of the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter China’s rise.

Other than having to explain his administration’s creative re-mapping of the area, Trump, said Hartung, is unlikely get much traction with his weapons-sales strategy in China.

“China is a complicated country, and you need a complex approach. You can’t just throw threats around…there’s got to be a security component but it should be thought through — it shouldn’t just be driven by U.S. economic interests. There should be a military strategy informing it, and that doesn’t seem to be the case with Trump,” said Hartung, adding that China is not as dependent on the United States. If Trump continues his rather blunt style of speaking in China, it might be “red meat” for his base here, but, he added, “they might not pay attention to whether it yields any economic benefits down the road.”