Last Sunday, President Donald Trump made the groundbreaking announcement that he had offered Chinese President Xi Jinping more favorable terms on trade in exchange for assistance in dealing with North Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal. This was followed by a bold declaration that a naval armada was racing toward the Korean peninsula in response to recent ballistic missile tests by North Korea, according to The Washington Post. It was later reported that the ship was more than 3,000 miles away heading to Australia. These actions were both in retaliation against an increasingly aggressive North Korea that has conducted several missile launches and a public assassination in Malaysia since Trump took office. However, Trump’s response has done nothing to improve the safety of the region and instead seriously undermines one of his core campaign promises — holding China accountable on free trade.
Trump spoke with Xi twice in early April. In the course of these meetings, he agreed to soften on two of his main campaign promises in exchange for assistance against North Korea — reducing the trade deficit and naming China a currency manipulator, or a nation that buys or sells foreign currency in exchange for its own to influence the exchange rate. The latter proposal had been ridiculed by economists for months prior to the decision, according to CNBC. China may have artificially deflated its currency in the past but is now working to strengthen its value, leaving several puzzled by Trump’s repeated insistence that the Treasury Department label them a currency manipulator. However, Trump’s decision to exert less pressure on China to restore the trade balance is an extremely significant deviation from his campaign platform. China has done significant harm to domestic production in the United States with tactics such as barriers to imports, high tariffs and dumping — a form of predatory pricing. Trump has an obligation to those that elected him to honor this fundamental part of his platform and backtracking after just four months in office is absurd.
Trump campaigned on his deal-making abilities, but perhaps his complete reversal on his trade policy could be justified if there was some sign that China would in fact be an ally against North Korea. However, all the evidence points against it — after Trump’s overture, China condemned the implementation of a defensive missile system in South Korea meant to protect Seoul against an unexpected attack, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Trump pointed to China’s statement in March that it would be cutting off imports of North Korean coal as evidence of a tougher stance towards Pyongyang. However, trade between China and North Korea has grown tenfold in the past 15 years — in direct violation of U.N. directives — and China still offers support in the form of access to oil, banks and naval ports. Trump has seemingly traded in his most significant promise to the American people for a shaky commitment from a historically deceptive government. One can only hope that the “Art of the Deal” improves during the next four years.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 24 print edition.
Email Anand Balaji at [email protected]