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After Singapore, What Future for US-Asia relations under Trump?   

BLOG - 15 June 2018

By Institut Montaigne

Following a sudden cancellation by Donald Trump, the historic summit between the United States and North Korea was finally held on 12 June in Singapore. The two leaders signed a joint declaration at the end of the meeting, reaffirming North Korea's denuclearization on the one hand, and security guarantees for the North Korean regime on the other. Philippe Le Corre, Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shares his analysis of this summit and the consequences it will have on the region.

Can we say that the historic summit held in Singapore on 12 June was a success?

The meeting is indeed historic... because it occurred. Yet we will need a fair share of optimism to face the future. For several decades, particularly from Bill Clinton’s presidency (1992-2000) onwards, Western governments had been wondering how to approach the North Korean hereditary dictatorial regime. Attempts to connect with the West were initiated by Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-un's father, but they all failed as the means to verify the denuclearization process were never implemented. The North Korean regime received money, but did not dismantle its nuclear arsenal. 
 
If Donald Trump chose to take the lead with this meeting, the final statement remains very vague on the nuclear issue. "It will take time," he added, which implied at least two things. First, that he could reduce economic sanctions were the denuclearization process to begin – in his conversation with Kim, he alluded to "special economic zones", mass tourism and others, as described  in a surrealist video produced by his Hollywood friends. Second, he could potentially put an end to the “war games” – or joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, described by Trump as "very costly and provocative", even though they were considered as crucial to ensuring the region's security until not long ago. Finally, the main point of contention is likely to be the implementation of an effective multilateral control of the denuclearization process. Very few experts have faith in this measure. And having personally visited North Korea, I find it hard to imagine how this regime could accept to give up, voluntarily, all, or even part, of its power.

Does this summit mark a turning point in Donald Trump's Asian policy?

Kim Jong-un is the big winner of this whole affair. Having travelled on an ultra-protected special "Air China" flight, he benefited from the best propaganda campaign a dictator could dream of. In the eyes of the world media, he met with the American President and signed a very vague document that commits him to almost nothing. 
 
On the other hand, the United States’s Asian policy has taken a new turn, or rather followed the path set by Donald Trump since he took office in January 2017. This strategy includes disengaging from the Trans-Pacific trade treaty (TPP), warning the Japanese and South Korean "allies" about the "exorbitant costs" the American military presence in their respective territories represents, and adopting an ambiguous attitude towards China (on June 14, he imposed $50billion of tariffs on Chinese imports). 
 
On North Korea, Beijing is taking advantage of the situation, and continues to unfailingly support Kim's regime.

What does this rapprochement between the United States and North Korea mean for the big power competition opposing the United States and China in the East Asian region?

Since Donald Trump's election, China has taken center stage and taken multiple initiatives. It presented itself as the champion of globalization - at a time when the West turns to populist and nationalist parties -, launched new institutions or new models, such as the "New Silk Roads" and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and is building economic links with everyone. Above all, it pursues an unprecedented territorial offensive in the South China Sea, despite the very clear judgement pronounced by The Hague International Arbitration Court in 2016. China is now in a strong position in Asia, and has become a key player in the Korean debate. We know that the country will do everything it can to prevent a reunification that would go against its interests. 
 
The real question is: what will become of the Trump administration's "Indo-Pacific" policy, aiming to gather India, Japan and the Pacific countries willing to bypass Chinese power? The mere mention of the withdrawal of American troops in South Korea cast a chill on the American military, as well as in Tokyo and Seoul, two capitals, which had not been informed beforehand of this "possibility".

 

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