MACK WILLIAMS. Trump’s ‘smart cookies’

President Trump’s characterisation of Kim Jong-un as a “smart cookie” illustrates the learning process he is undergoing about how to operate in Asia and who might be contributing to it. Learning how to manage President Duterte may be another challenge. 

As tensions in the Korean Peninsular continue to rise so has President Trump’s learning process about operating in the Asian environment. Much of this probably stems from his repeated conversations with President Xi who clearly has been anxious to educate Trump about the domestic scene in North Korea. Given the way Trump  operates, it probably derives less from briefings by the few Korean experts left in his Administration though most of these would likely share much of President Xi’s advice.

All of this has become apparent over the past week as Trump’s public comments  have revealed a deeper understanding of the Korean scene than he had earlier demonstrated. It has also been reflected in his comments about the limited options available to him to resolve the crisis – and the extreme risks these entailed. So much so that some US commentators have pointed to growing similarities between Trump’s position now and that previously of Obama. But with the one major exception being Trump’s maintaining the heat of the ultimate military threat against the DPRK if it does not renounce its nuclear weapons program.

The most spectacular example has been the dramatic change in Trump’s characterisation of Kim Jong-un from being “mad”  and the like to now being a “smart cookie” – and the reasons why. Many serious North Korean watchers have long tried to disabuse politicians and the media about these persistent descriptions of Kim Jong-un and argued that basing any eventual negotiations with Kim Jong-un on them would be counter productive for the US. This all has assumed more relevance since Secretary of State Tillerson has begun to let on that the US might eventually be prepared to talk directly with the DPRK – albeit at the “appropriate” time. President Xi’s likely hand in Trump’s transformation on Kim Jong-un should not be underestimated . Trump’s detailed comments about Kim Jong-un’s struggle at such an early age ( though he stumbled over Kim’s exact age!) to get the North Korean (gerontocratic) military leadership under control, the execution of his uncle  etc. all ran off his tongue as something he had only learned recently – and it would be no surprise if it had come from  Xi !

Trump’s decision last week to telephone a number of ASEAN leaders also smacks of him being advised how important it was for to try to rebuild relations with South East Asia. It has been presented by the White House as a personal effort by Trump to garner support for US efforts against North Korea. But it  probably had more to do with the ASEAN Summit in Manila earlier in the week whose conclusions covered the South China Sea in the most general terms – calling for the avoidance of military confrontation in the area. This would have been music to Xi’s ears but posed some serious questions for the US about how hard it should persist with its current South China Sea strategy – especially given the concessions that Trump is being forced to make to encourage Xi in maintaining pressure on North Korea.

Trump’s surprise invitation in his phone call for Duterte to visit Washington seems to have caught  the State Department unawares and has lit a fuse within the US human rights lobby. Trump may have been attracted to Duterte’s “no holds barred” style of government and also encouraged by the Trumps’ long time business associate in Manila,  who has been appointed by Duterte as a special trade emissary to the US.

Duterte may yet prove a handful for Trump too! He will be very sensitive to any suggestion that he be seen  visiting Washington as any sort of a supplicant or even to be slipping back into the former close Alliance relationship with the US. Like Trump he revels in the unpredictable . So it was not surprising to see him reported as saying he was so “tied up” at the  moment ( including with already agreed trips to Russia, Israel  and the summit in China) he was not sure when he would be able to take up the invitation!

Conveniently, Duterte was also in Davao where three Chinese navy ships were visiting . On the ships he floated the idea of joint naval exercises with the Chinese Navy in the nearby Sulu Sea (adjacent to but not actually in the South China Sea)! This is an area of legitimate concern because of the activity of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists – and through which a large amount of Australian trade with North Asia transits.

It will be interesting to see whether Duterte emerges from his contacts with Trump as another “smart cookie”.

Mack Williams was former Australian Ambassador to ROK and the Philippines

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