What is the world coming to in Northeast Asia? Northeast Asia now seems literally being dictated by a pair of youngsters from Washington and Pyongyang, given their political status in their respective decision-making groups. From the beginning of the year to the US-China summit on April 6, fortunately enough, they were able to restrain themselves to only verbal attacks and blackmail. Following the US-China summit, however, diplomatic rhetoric has intensified with the messages of the youngsters being spewed out through the mouths of those in charge of military and defense.
Their words have seemingly been translated into deeds with threats to facilitate military deployments for preemptive strikes only to be countered by threats to do more firearms tests and reciprocal counterstrikes, embroiling the regional states in political strife and upending their fragile trust and confidence. Believe it or not, regional tensions have now been fueled by and therefore become virtually accountable to a young gun who has recently entered the dynamics of political theater with North Korea. Now they are after each other.
The latter young gun’s name is Jarod Kushner. He is supposedly a special strategic advisor to US President Donald Trump who is his father-in-law. And he is only 36 years old with very little policy decision-making opportunities in his career. The extant youngster is Kim Jung Un, the reigning dictator in North Korea. He is only 33 years old.
The fate of peace and stability in Northeast Asia seems to be in the hands of these youngsters. It was already not in the safe hands of a little rascal like Kim alone. His playing with missiles and detonating nuclear warheads for tests has become habitual. Now we have another rascal in Kushner, if indeed he were truly the Maestro behind the recently-concluded summit between Trump and his Chinese counterpart in Florida as various media sources have reported with confidence.
Recognizing his status in the inner circle of decision-makers at the White House, a Trump-friendly reporter had access to interview Kushner and asked his views on the North Korean youngster. It at least offered a glimpse into the White House perception. Words by Kushner sounded more like the episode from the world-renowned children’s story The New Emperor’s Clothes. Excerpts from the interview on April 18 that appeared in The New Yorker on April 20 are as follows:
“Kim Jong-un was a totally unqualified person who attained his position of power only through nepotism. Here you have a guy who has no government experience, and he’s in charge of the whole thing. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. Instead of working his way up and acquiring the skills necessary to do his job, the North Korean leader had been given huge responsibilities and power only because of family connections. There’s only one word for that nepotism. The notion of such an unqualified person conducting foreign policy beyond belief. I mean, why would you let someone with no experience in foreign affairs anywhere near such important decisions? Why would anyone take someone like that seriously? The people of North Korea must look at the powerful position attained by the totally inexperienced and unqualified person and shake their heads. They’ve got to be asking themselves, ‘Who elected him?’”
Just entering the mid-career level myself, I do not necessarily conform to the conventional axiom that appreciates the correlation between the age factor and the problem-solving capability. Nor do I underappreciate the statecraft that elders have accrued from years of experience. The wisdom of their statecraft is so dependable, trustworthy, and readily available that in the eyes of youngsters that it looks like a panacea to all unsolvable problems.
On the contrary, the emerging verbal wars and ensuing confusion in the region is admittedly a result of reckless orchestration by the inexperienced, unwise, passion-driven, and “we-already-know-the-whole-world” young “leaders” from North Korea and unfortunately, the United States.
What they are orchestrating now seems most likely to go viral in a negative direction. The war of rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington is now escalating tensions with no alternative but the perpetuation of the security dilemma situation. More deployments of weaponries and forces by Washington and more missile and possibly even nuclear tests will transpire into a domino of measures and countermeasures from players other than the United States and North Korea. There will be more confusion from the way the US and North Korea have been over issuing diplomatic rhetoric with unclear intent. People with more extensive experience in statecraft and greater situational experience with crucial decision-making opportunities now must intervene.
Disastrous US-China Summit
The very first composition by the young American Maestro was a complete disaster. Neither was there a joint statement presented nor a joint press conference arranged at the end of the first US-China summit. Anyone with background history knowledge about the bilateral relationship must have been appalled by its conclusion. The last time such a summit was void of a joint statement was in 1975 when former US president Gerald Ford visited Beijing. That did not go without a try — an utmost effort by his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Kissinger just could not get China to concede on promises that his former boss Richard Nixon had made regarding normalization of the relationship and therefore America’s concession on the Taiwan issue. Nixon resigned in the middle of his second term for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Ford immediately succeeded him and was at the time running for another term with great uncertainty because of the lingering legacy of Nixon and insufficient time left for his campaign.
Under the circumstances, Kissinger could not guarantee anything to his Chinese counterparts that included Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (Zhou Enlai was on a sickbed for his cancer.) They therefore decided to forego a joint statement. To save Ford’s face, they agreed to hold a joint press conference and Kissinger arranged for a visit to a couple of additional Asian countries (Indonesia and the Philippines) to make the visit to China look like it was a part of tour. Following the conclusion of the tour, Kissinger resigned.
Trump stepped off on the wrong foot to begin with on China. He first accepted a call from China’s nemesis — the Taiwanese president — and expressed his support of Taiwan following his election last November. It only attested to his ignorance once again on the meaning of such an endeavor to China as well as US-China relations, let alone his knowledge of US diplomatic history. It was then when Trump reached out to his son-in-law for help.
According to a Washington Post analysis from an anonymous White House official, Kushner is not “reflexively pro-China,” but holds the view that “everything is negotiable” with China.
According to The Washington Post (April 2), Kushner was there with Trump on China. For instance, he was included in Trump’s meeting with Kissinger on December 6 in which he reported on his trip to China on December 2. Meetings with the Chinese Ambassador were not held in the Oval Office but in Kushner’s office on December 9 and December 10.
Trump retreated by calling Xi a month later and tried to explain it was not meant that way. It was then when the White House China channel was established by Kushner. His visit to the Chinese Embassy to attend Chinese New Year Party on February 3 reportedly led to Trump’s call to Xi on February 10 to confirm US support to the One China Policy on Taiwan.
Thereafter it was reported in The New York Times (April 2) that it was Kushner and Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai who planned the Florida summit. The draft of a joint statement was allegedly sent to Kushner from Cui but to no avail on follow-ups thereafter. The only inference we can draw from the absence of both a joint statement and a joint press conference is that neither was able to reach a compromise just like when Kissinger was not able to do it for Ford’s visit. It must have been worse as the two sides could not arrange even a joint press conference.
According to a Washington Post analysis from an anonymous White House official, Kushner is not “reflexively pro-China,” but holds the view that “everything is negotiable” with China. However, it obviously did not work out and the result was an embarrassment for the host country. Thereafter, the US positions on China and North Korea has been conveyed through various and seemingly uncoordinated channels like Secretaries, anonymous officials, aides, and through media interviews and social media. None of these statements can be confirmed as to whether they are also Xi’s or the official Chinese positions, causing more political strife in the concerned nations and undermining the political and military credibility of the United States around the region if not the globe.
Evidence of No Coordination Whatsoever
America has long had a tradition of keeping things in a secret manner when dealing with issues with China. Kissinger’s secret visit in July 1971 spoke volumes. Nixon’s official visit to Beijing in February 1972 was arranged by a small handful of people. The story can go on with many other examples. China affairs has been confined to a few hands that have the best trust and confidence of the president. They are the so-called “inner circle.”
Given the complex and high risk nature of the North Korean nuclear issue, it is also very likely handled by only those few people in the inner circle. It is largely because it requires China’s cooperation. Any dealings with nuclear weapons in past American diplomatic history were all handled in a clandestine fashion. It is for this reason that we see many confusing remarks from different officials from different departments.
As early as March 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while travelling in South Korea, declared that all options were on the table, and the next day, claimed that the United States would consider pre-emptive military action against North Korea. On the very same day upon his arrival in Beijing, however, he changed his words, retreating from the hardline stance he displayed a few hours earlier and emphasizing the importance of dialogue with North Korea.
Trump at his meeting with Xi on April 6-7 warned of the US’ possible independent action against North Korea if China did not join his pressure campaign. After Xi’s departure, Trump toned down his position to cooperation with China for peaceful options including everything but military options. But Trump’s words did not last too long. He allegedly ordered the USS Carl Vinson to head to the Korean peninsula. There were also reports that Trump had called two more aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz, to head to Japan. In the end, all these reports were found to be false for unknown reasons.
More confusion came from so-called “senior officials” who had the intent to leak information to the press. One such official on April 14 denied in an interview with Reuters that the US was prepared to launch a preemptive conventional weapons strike if Pyongyang carried out another nuclear weapons test. Another intelligence official told NBC on the same day that if the US is convinced North Korea will follow through with a test, it can preemptively deploy Tomahawk missiles from two warships parked in the region, implying the USS Carl Vinson and perhaps the USS Ronald Reagan.
A couple of days later on April 16, appearing in an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” National Security Adviser Hubert McMaster asserted that military measures are off the table. Trump also tweeted: “why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens,” obviously showing reservations for military options and high expectations on China. His remarks only raised more questions. What was the deal with the “100 day plan” that he asked Xi to turn in following the summit? What was the deal with the Treasury Department’s April 14 denial of China’s currency manipulator status?
All these statements and leaks transpire into one conclusion. The Trump administration is as confused as much as we are. One thing that is certain is that the show that the administration is putting on is run by a 36 years old youngster who rose to power through nepotism just like his North Korean counterpart. He and Kim Jung Un share one common feature that he had criticized Kim of: Unqualified to conduct foreign policy. It will bring more confusion and chaos if they continue.
We cannot let these youngsters chase one another. What makes it worse is the fact that the Trump administration is obviously not staffed by veteran decision makers. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is no General Colin Powell. Powell had substantial decision-making experience during the 1980s before serving as Secretary of State. McMaster is no Condoleezza Rice, who also held many decision-making posts in the late 1980s and early 1990s before her appointment as National Security Adviser.
Northeast Asian states have to be aware of the current situation that the United States and Trump administration are in. We must disillusion ourselves with the inconsistent and uncoordinated remarks and statements from the Trump administration. We have to place ourselves in the driver’s seat. We must educate the United States on the truth and facts about regional affairs, otherwise we will be wasting precious time and effort that will in turn only allow North Korea to complete its nuclear program. We must communicate better with one another towards this end. Only communication can break the impasse and stalemate that we are now in. Communication in all forms with no discrimination or exclusion must be established. China will have to step forward and so do the rest of the regional players. Blackmail and military threats can only do no more than breed further stalemates.