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What if the Trump-Kim Singapore talks bomb?

Manjit Bhatia  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | It’s a fitting place to hold a summit that may - after a 65-year Cold War standoff between the two countries - avoid the dreaded nuclear holocaust. It could bring peace, of sorts, to Northeast Asia - and beyond. Until recently, North Korea was threatening to nuclearise its missiles that could reach as far away as Australia and the United States.

Donald Trump responded swiftly. He warned Kim Jong-un, alias “Little Rocket Man”: “… my nuclear button is a much bigger and more powerful one than [Kim’s], and my button works!” Against such machismo, and after the on-off opera on the meeting, both men will face off today on Singapore’s Sentosa island.

Once a pirate haven, Sentosa was called Pulau Belakang Mati in the Malay - literally, the ‘island of death from behind’ in English. In 1972 Singapore changed the name to Sentosa (Malay) - ‘peace and tranquillity’. Japanese soldiers held British and Australian war prisoners here, summarily executing scores, and massacring up to 100,000 Singapore Chinese civilians at Reping Beach. 

If Trump and Kim fail to reach agreement that avoids the nuclear button, Potus (President of the United States) can spend an extra day striking out at the reconstructed Reping Beach that houses the 18-hole Serapong golf course. It’ll be one day more than he cared to spend at the Charlesvoix G7 meeting last weekend, having huffed and puffed off.

The prospective outcome of the Trump-Kim talks? That’s like forecasting snowfall in Singapore or China suddenly dismantling its forward bases on contested South China Sea territories. Nobody really knows. After Quebec, and Trump’s renowned tempestuous, recalcitrant and unpredictable mood swings, this meeting will be more about two men of similar character testing the waters.

Washington maintains 25,000 (drawn down from around 70,000 in 1952) American soldiers across 80-odd South Korean sites. It’s the third-largest US contingent outside continental US, and after Japan (40,000) and Germany (35,000). They’re there for a reason: Trump doesn’t implicitly trust “depraved dictator” Kim, even after his blowing hot and cold on the dictator, then belatedly declaring that Kim genuinely wants peace.

And if Kim doesn’t or walks away? Thus the significance of US soldiers stationed from Northeast Asia to Guam and northern Australia. And to kill two birds with one stone, it sends a clear message to China that the regional order will be tempered only by Washington and its regional allies who, in spite of professing their foreign and defence policy “neutrality”, want to hang on to US military protection. 

Obstinate and insufferable

In Singapore, Trump will arm-wrestle Kim for an agreement that works primarily for him, his presidency, his White House, and the chaotic Trump “swamp” in Washington - in that order. Followed by Pyongyang. But the question Trump will grapple with isn’t whether he, and he alone, can jawbone Kim into denuclearisation - clearly Trump thinks he can - but whether Kim really wants the same, to be jawboned by an American.

Outwardly the brutal tyrant is exhibiting himself as an amicable leader who has now embraced change for his country, people and the region. Maybe he does. Bear in mind, though, that both men are more or less similar in personality, are impossibly obstinate and insufferable, and carry a trust deficit in their respective homes and internationally.

So there’s a strong likelihood that, whatever agreement is struck between Trump and Kim, it will be wafer-thin. And because it’ll be wafer-thin, they may not commit themselves to it. The stoush behind close doors at the five-star Capella Hotel will be about the clash of strong personae than anything of great historical substance that will avoid unspeakable carnage from a single bad judgement.

Trump will never agree to Kim’s demands to withdraw US troops from South Korea, any more than the latter’s president, Moon Jae-in, would want it either. At least not until all North Korean nuclear sites, including uranium-enriching and missile-making facilities - Pyongyang is believed to possess around 60 nuclear bombs - are destroyed and verified by international inspectors and the media.

This is also the condition Trump has put on Kim as a prerequisite to the US rebuilding the battered North Korean economy. But why would Kim, like his father and his grandfather before him, voluntarily dismantle the very advantage North Korea has had to stave off a US-led attack on the North, and now to compel Trump to meet him in Singapore?

Other examples of Kim’s overtures and how much Trump has ceded to Kim for this summit include his choice of Singapore primarily for its neutral location (as far as Singapore is politically neutral). Even the choice of the hotel was Kim’s, since it’s not owned by US commercial interests.

But this is as far as Trump will yield to Kim. He’ll have to wring out big nuclear concessions from the North Korean. That won’t be easy - unless Kim is hopelessly desperate. But let’s say that he is, and decides to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. Some critics say this will cement the US hegemon at a time when the rest of the world was signalling its inevitable decline in the face of the rise of China. Others say Seoul and Tokyo will come to breathe easier.

Not so fast.

Mini-Marshall Plan

True, Trump has promised to rebuild the North’s economy through a mini-Marshall Plan, in a manner similar to President Harry Truman and General Douglas McArthur of Japan after 1945. Trump has assured Kim his country would be wealthier in time. But Trump is in an ignitable vein over countries he deems to have “taken advantage of the US for decades and decades.”

Seoul, Tokyo and Taiwan (and Southeast Asia for that matter) have been free-riding on the US-dominated East Asian security order since the end of World War II. And it’ll be a big-time crunch when - not if - Trump then presses the Moon and Abe governments to pay for North Korean reconstruction - if it gets this far in Singapore. 

Japan is still struggling to break free from its spectacular three-decade long economic bubble bust-up, with its gross domestic product mired in fits and starts and its debt skyrocketing. South Korea is facing escalating unemployment, close to 10%, and mountainous debt from an economy historically shackled by mostly corrupt chaebol conglomerates. Footing the North’s bill will worsen these countries’ finances and directly threaten their frantic economic rebalancing plans.

Beijing isn’t off the hook either. With Seoul, Tokyo and Trump rebuilding North Korea, China will be choked off from a potentially lucrative market. Yet this scenario is long into the future, and the future is uncertain given the vagaries of the world economy: the financial mess in parts of Europe, ballooning global debt, and sharp world oil price spikes.

Geopolitically, China will lose its buffer that North Korea has provided against allied forces in South Korea, Japan and, understandably to a lesser extent, Taiwan. That buffer has been in play when China crossed the Yalu River in 1950, and just as South Korea has been Japan’s buffer all along against China.

Beijing will feel demonstrably more nervous as the US-allied coalition strengthens to the east, further worsening China’s fears of the long-held policy of the US containment policy at a time of Beijing militarist expansionism.

A better deal from China?

The Trump-Kim Singapore talks are highly preliminary. Trump has put his personal political stakes on it yielding an outcome that’ll boost his popularity amongst his domestic political base and to show the world a thing or two about his brand of hard-nosed, US entrepreneur deal-making. Clearly, he failed in Quebec, where he faces serious backlash from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.

If Trump bombs in Singapore, it’ll leave Beijing with more room to manoeuvre. It’ll offer Pyongyang a new and better deal that will serve both sides better, but more so China’s long-term interests. However, here’s the other growing bane for Trump: Russia - and much beyond Russian attempts to interfere in US politics.

To be sure, Western pressure has driven Moscow and Beijing ever closer. It’s a relationship that might easily coalesce into more than a convenient partnership; it’ll become a vigorous geostrategic alliance in the Northern Pacific - for starters.

In 2014 both sides signed an agreement to bypass using the US dollar in bilateral trade between the two countries. Last week Moscow and Beijing signed two vital deals: joint-space exploration and Russian gas exports to China from western Siberia through a second, alternative pipeline.

And if Trump fails to snatch a concrete, lasting deal with Kim in Singapore, there’s every chance Russia, which has held an interest in North Korea since the late 1800s, could join China to strengthen the North Korean buffer and to finance Pyongyang’s economic restructuring and development directly - removing the likelihood of death from behind.

MANJIT BHATIA is an Australian academic and writer who specialises in international economics and politics. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, US.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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