Well known film reviewer, Mike D’Angelo, writes, “Magic tricks frequently involve misdirection. In order to create an illusion, the magician needs to perform an action the audience shouldn’t see; this requires providing them [the audience] with something else on which they can focus.” Looking at the recent summit between President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, who can seriously challenge the notion that Trump performed the greatest trick in recent geopolitical history?
Going into the Sino-American summit, the two leaders were at odds. Trump had campaigned vociferously against bad trade deals with China and advocated for standing up to Chinese military aggression. During the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration, Trump fielded a congratulatory phone call from the pro-independence Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This move challenged American foreign policy orthodoxy.
Since President Jimmy Carter, the United States refused to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. We chose instead to accept the “One-China” policy that said that the only legitimate government of China was the Chinese Communist Party. While we would not allow for China to forcefully reunite Taiwan with the mainland, we would no longer treat Taiwan as a sovereign state. When Trump accepted the call from President Tsai Ing-wen, he sent a message to China: Don’t take anything for granted.
Later on, Trump began talking about creating a border tax for products coming into the country from places like Mexico and China. Since the United States is a leading importer of Chinese goods, this was a direct threat to the Chinese economy. After all, China’s economy—while still performing better than America’s—has been flagging, in no small part due to decreased demand from the Emerging Markets for Chinese exports.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping of China, an ardent nationalist, doubled-down on his country’s unlawful claims to islands in the South China Sea and openly advocated for greater globalization at the Davos conference. Xi also enhanced his country’s support for rogue states like North Korea, increased ties with Russia, and continued undermining of American power wherever it can be so undermined.
It seemed as though no headway would be made going into the Mar-a-Lago Summit. And, had Trump been a conventional politician, it is likely that he would have given the proverbial store away for a token photo op with Xi. But, geopolitics is akin to magic, and the best practitioners of geopolitics often use the same tools of theatricality and deception to aid them in their quest for greatness.
The thrust of the Mar-a-Lago Summit was about how Trump could get Xi Jinping to embrace regime change in North Korea.
Remember, North Korea has been a client state of China’s going back to the Korean War in the 1950’s. Chinese protection on the international stage ensures that the North can defy Western sanctions imposed upon it. Indeed, China is the main reason why Kim Jong-un is in power in North Korea.
We’ve heard over the decades that the only way to ensure that North Korea does not go nuclear is to topple the Kim regime. However, we won’t do that because of the costs involved, the risk to South Korea (and the wider region), and the fact that China would likely feel compelled to send military forces to their stricken client state’s aid. That, of course, would risk igniting another world war.
Instead, we were encouraged to effectively bribe the North Koreans. We gave the Kim regime billions of dollars in foreign aid per year in exchange for the Kim regime promising not to develop nuclear arms. Of course, the Kim regime took the money and continued building bombs. They felt safe doing this because they knew that China ultimately had their back. But why would China protect such an unstable actor like North Korea?
The answer is largely economic. China gets much of its coal from the North. For China to continue its meteoric economic growth (which is, in fact, naturally slowing), China must have easy access to large quantities of cheap energy. Coal is a prime commodity in China. Since China uses its muscle to defend the North abroad, the North gives China its coal at cost. This has the effect of protecting the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power at home. If the CCP continues delivering the economic goods to the Chinese people, then the people will feel less inclined to revolt against the CCP. Plus, China does not want to contend with a North Korean refugee crisis. So, if they buttress the Kim regime, they at least get some semblance of stability.
Trump understood this. Since President Trump is the master of the art of the deal, he likely spent the last several months bashing China as an opening bid in his effort to topple Kim Jong-un at cost. So, Trump and his team assembled a catchy deal with China: America will sell China its coal and grant Chinese firms access to America’s lucrative market, if China promises to stabilize North Korea after the United States topples Kim Jong-un. For all of their rhetoric about the evils of America, Xi and his fellow CCP apparatchiks yearn for greater access to American markets.
Besides, Xi was growing weary of Kim Jong-un. He was likely already looking for a way of ridding China of its troublesome neighbor. Trump’s proposal would have given Xi his opening. Of course, Xi couldn’t have simply accepted such a deal at face value. What’s more, Trump couldn’t allow for the preening press to misrepresent what he was trying to do. He needed a distraction; a grand illusion.
Here’s the trick: get everyone to pay attention to the Syrian Civil War by striking at Assad while Trump made a secret backroom deal with Xi. As an added benefit, America gets to put the fear of its military might back into China’s mind. Don’t believe me? Look at what’s happened since the meeting between Trump and Xi.
No sooner had the Trump Administration launched its volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Assad’s air base, than China refused to accept a major shipment of vital coal from North Korea. The United States has deployed a flotilla to the western Pacific Ocean. Also, the renowned U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 has been deployed to South Korea on a “training mission.” Just what are they training for? Only the SEALs know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involves ensuring that Kim Jong-un is soon to have a very bad day. Oh, yeah, and China just moved 150,000 of its troops to the North Korean border.
Just as D’Angelo described, Trump’s magic trick was a misdirection for both the press and the Chinese. He created an illusion—the attack on Assad—to distract his audience, while he deftly performed an action only he and Xi could see. In one fell swoop, then, Trump managed to set the stage for regime change in North Korea without repeating the missteps of Iraq. He’s reinvigorated America’s military prestige. Also, by opening up American coal to Chinese interests, President Trump has upheld his campaign pledge to coal miners. President Trump has also rehabilitated the ailing Sino-American relationship (what was once dubbed “Chimerica”).
The only question we should be asking ourselves is whether or not coal-for-regime-change was the end of the deal? Since the press is incapable of doing its job, I will leave you with the open-ended question of what could have possibly prompted China to abandon its decades-long support of North Korea? After all, I still believe that China plans on pushing America out of the Asia-Pacific, if given the opportunity. Still, I would be happy to be proven wrong on that notion. My hope is that the mere promise of a better deal from America (coupled with America’s renewed military vigor following the Assad strikes) was enough. But, I suppose, we may not know for sure for some time.
Until then, we must concede that President Trump has not only made American foreign policy great again, but he’s also made great power politics fun again (and at cost)!