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Trump-Kim summit: More than a footnote in history

History will look back on the June 12 summit as one of the constellation of events that ushered in the end of US global power in the region

Now the dust has settled, it is time to ask what the Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump really meant. Will the meeting deserve a chapter of its own when the history of Asia in the early 21st century is written? Or will it get just a minor, if colourful, footnote?

This is not an easy question to answer.

The summit was surely the weirdest meeting of national leaders since then US President Ronald Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986, when the two Cold War titans alarmed their advisers by suddenly talking about getting rid of nuclear weapons, and suddenly the world seemed to lurch.

Never since then have we seen such momentous issues handled in such a free-wheeling and even chaotic manner at such a high level. This alone makes the encounter fascinating. But the real significance of the meeting is not to be found just by analysing the body language, the written communique, or the warm words that were spoken in and around the meeting itself.


We have to look wider, because context is everything in diplomacy, and the context of the Singapore summit - both before and after the meeting - was almost as strange as the summit itself.

Mr Trump came to Singapore straight from an almost equally strange meeting of the G-7 group of major economies, where the tensions on trade and other issues between America and its traditional Western allies in Europe and Japan were starkly on display.

That was just a few weeks after Mr Trump had defied those allies and trashed his predecessor Barack Obama's signature foreign policy achievement, when he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

On returning to America from Singapore, he immediately began to escalate confrontations with China over trade issues. The on-again-off-again skirmishes of the past few months now appear to be turning into a full-scale trade war between the world's two largest economies, with incalculable consequences.


And at the same time, Mr Trump's White House started trying to line up another summit - this time with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vienna - that might well turn out even stranger than the meeting with Mr Kim in Singapore.

Meanwhile, at home in America, domestic resistance to Mr Trump's unique and unsettling style of government seems to have reached new peaks with concerns about the treatment of children at America's borders, forcing the President into a rare backdown.

All of this is happening as the political pulse quickens with the approach of crucial US mid-term elections in November. They will give US voters their first real chance to pass judgment on the man they so unexpectedly elected President in November 2016, and there is a real chance that Mr Trump's Republicans will lose control of the Congress.

So we must look at the outcome of the Singapore summit in the context of a much wider question about where Mr Trump is taking America as a country, as a global power, and as a key strategic player in Asia. All these are at stake in the rolling turmoil of which his meeting with Mr Kim was such a notable element.


The best way to see how all this could pan out is to look at a couple of possible scenarios over the next few months.

One possibility is that all goes according to Mr Trump's plans. North Korea really is committed to reducing if not eliminating its nuclear arsenal, and constructive negotiations begin over how that is to be managed and what Pyongyang will get in return.

Beijing really is intimidated by Mr Trump's tariff threats, and takes genuine steps to meet Washington's concerns on questions like intellectual property theft.

Meanwhile Iran is cowed into abandoning its bid for regional hegemony in the Middle East, US allies in Europe and its Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement) partners in North America finally admit the justice of Mr Trump's complaints about their trade and security policies, and come round to doing his bidding.

Mr Trump forges a new understanding with Mr Putin and convinces him to drop his challenge to the status quo in Europe. And America's harsh immigration policies at last succeed in deterring desperate people from trying to enter the country illegally.

The alternative scenario is that it all goes bad. America's crisis of confidence and identity over immigration deepens. Mr Putin is emboldened and increases pressure on his neighbours. America's trade partners in North America and Europe defy his pressure on trade and no longer follow America's lead on security questions. Iran consolidates its position in the Middle East. Beijing matches Washington blow for blow in an escalating trade war that drives the US economy - and with it the global economy - into reverse. And North Korea makes it plain that it has, in reality, no intention of surrendering its nuclear weapons any time soon.

It is not hard to see which of these scenarios will end up being closer to reality as events unfold over the next few months. There is a real likelihood that a lot of things are going to go wrong for Mr Trump and America over the next few months - including on North Korea.

Look at where things stand after the summit. Mr Trump's supporters give him credit for his willingness to reach out to an adversary, which is fair enough. But by claiming to have achieved so much so soon, and by making such significant concessions in return for so little from Mr Kim, Mr Trump has made it almost impossible to maintain real pressure on Pyongyang.

It was never very likely that Mr Kim was ever going to agree to fully dismantle and abandon his nuclear and missile programmes. They are simply too important, not just to North Korea's security but also to its international standing - after all, they got him a meeting with Mr Trump. But since the summit, Mr Kim is going to be much more confident that a combination of delaying tactics and token gestures will allow him to deflect international pressure, reap economic benefits, and keep his nuclear capabilities largely intact.

And that will have devastating consequences for America's standing in Asia. South Korea, eager to build on the momentum it has developed in its own relations with the North, will learn to live with a nuclear-armed neighbour. That will mean either looking to Beijing for protection from North Korea, or building its own nuclear forces. Either way, America's role on the Korean peninsula seems very likely to dwindle, even if it doesn't withdraw its forces as Mr Trump so plainly wishes to do.

The impact on Japan is, if anything, even more significant, because the US-Japan alliance is the one irreplaceable foundation of America's strategic position in Asia. Tokyo was evidently appalled by Mr Trump's willingness at the summit to abandon joint exercises in South Korea, and humiliated by his refusal to take the abductee issue - Japanese citizens held for decades by the North - more seriously in his discussions with Mr Kim. Japanese confidence in America as its security guarantor has been under pressure for many years, but Mr Trump's performance in Singapore has greatly deepened doubts about whether relying on America remains a viable strategy for Japan.

And all of this, of course, is good news for China, which seeks to overturn US leadership in Asia and take its place. It is a zero-sum contest in which China gains whenever America loses.

This is how the Singapore summit will ultimately be judged - as a key milestone in the eclipse of US power in Asia by China, and more broadly as one of the constellation of misjudgments that finally ended the post-Cold War era of US global leadership. It will deserve much more than a colourful footnote when the history of these times is written.

• Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2018, with the headline Trump-Kim summit: More than a footnote in history. Subscribe