Global uncertainty following news that President Donald Trump has been hospitalised with Covid-19 underscores the downside of an administration that has built its foreign relations around the president’s personality, rather than well-crafted policy, and undercut the good will of allies amassed over decades, say analysts.
“Allies will be thinking, ‘If the US can’t get a handle on the pandemic to the point where it gets into the Oval Office, what does it say if we need the support of the marines?’” said James Green, a fellow at Georgetown University and former state department official.
“This underscores the unreliability of the US. I don’t think anyone is going to be smug about it, that it serves you right, but it points to the chaotic part of this administration,” added Green, who also served as a trade negotiator with the US embassy in Beijing.
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Throughout his presidency, Trump has often eschewed predictability, protocol, alliances, diplomatic niceties and the advice of experts, frequently relying instead on instinct.
“Experience taught me a few things,” he wrote in his book The Art of the Deal. “One is to listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper.”
The White House has insisted that Trump is able to work from the hospital. If his condition worsens, however, analysts say that decision-making could grind to a halt in the absence of a president who has been loathe to delegate or craft detailed policies.
On Friday, global stock markets and oil prices slid while gold rallied as the news spread amid a lack of clarity over exactly when the president got sick and how serious was his condition.
Questions around the health and well-being of a US leader spur global concern even with a more conventional president, as seen with John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and Ronald Reagan’s slipping mental acuity. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after leaving office in 1989.
But this is made worse by the nature of the potential threat facing the president – amid concerns that the entire upper echelons of US power could be vulnerable to infection – as well as Trump’s poor record on transparency and unique approach to policy, analysts said.
On Friday, the state department sought to reassure allies and domestic constituents that US foreign policy would remain consistent. However on Saturday, the state department said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would depart for Japan on Sunday but would not go to Mongolia and South Korea as originally planned.
In a briefing on Friday, assistant secretary of state David Stilwell said that Congress, US allies and administration officials remained in basic agreement on policies despite the uncertainties, with discussions in Tokyo and Seoul expected over shared economic and security concerns and China’s expanded footprint in the South China Sea.
“We are all pretty much on the same piece of paper with respect to the main issues in the region,” Stilwell said. “What we want to get back to, what we had before the corona broke out, is an economy that benefits the – everybody – the people.”
Trump’s highly irregular approach to the presidency has been on prominent display since he took office nearly four years ago – in his administration’s approach to China and North Korea as well as US allies in Europe, Asia and North America.
Since 2017, US-China relations involving trade, espionage, health, education and visas, among others, have been on a roller coaster. Trump started his administration with an unprecedented call with Taiwan’s president that set Beijing back on its heels. Beijing considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory, to be reunited by force if necessary.
Since then, Trump has launched a massive trade war that has roiled markets and held much of the global economy hostage, as the world’s two largest economies imposed tens of billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions on each other.
This was interspersed with adulation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strongman approach, the signing of a controversial trade deal Trump touted as “the biggest deal there is anywhere in the world” and praise for the Chinese leader’s handling of the pandemic.
Trump then switched gears again, accusing Beijing of causing a pandemic he has been criticised for badly mismanaging. In the process, he has created collateral damage for Asian-Americans with his repeated references to the “China virus” and “kung flu”.
Relations with China also have been shaped by another feature of Trump’s tenure, analysts said, that could play out during the current health crisis.
Trump’s lack of interest or focus in some policy areas has seen competing lieutenants push their own agendas and craft their own policy. Yet they are also wary of taking steps that Trump might notice and unceremoniously reverse, say analysts.
“Many key elements of the Trump administration’s China policy have not been driven by the president himself but by his appointees,” said Rush Doshi, director of Brookings Institution’s China Initiative and a former policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“And the president has sometimes undermined his administration’s efforts on China, pushing a softer line on Huawei and Xinjiang in hopes of securing a better trade deal,” he said.
An additional question should Trump be sidelined for any length of time is whether decreased presidential involvement would help or hurt. Trump was moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre on Friday after his doctor issued a statement saying he was “well at this time” and expected to continue carrying out his duties during isolation.
“In the event that the president is sidelined with illness even for a brief period of time, we can expect different factions in the White House and various agencies to vie for power, while moving ahead with their own policy decisions,” said Wendy Cutler, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former senior trade official.
Others said a less active schedule could lead to greater policy coherence that Trump would be otherwise inclined to undermine.
Former US officials who lived in China said they anticipate two opposing reactions to Trump’s illness among top Chinese party and government officials.
“One group of elites will see this as an added level of uncertainty, an added layer of chaos from an administration that’s already quite chaotic,” Green said.
“But the other will see it as a reaffirmation of their style of government, something that will further distract the US, and that China benefits from that.”
Green said he expected that nationalistic Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats would be in the latter group.
But analysts said Trump’s lack of predictability also had its merits, putting Beijing on stark notice – backed by Congress and public opinion polls – that the US-China relationship needed fundamental restructuring no matter who was in the White House.
This comes amid growing global concern as Xi’s government tightens its grip over Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia; squabbles with India, Japan and Southeast Asian neighbours over territory; and raises hackles in Europe over 5G security, large trade surpluses and its Covid-19 diplomacy.
Trump’s unique foreign policy has also been on display with North Korea. Early in his administration, the president got into a fiery war of words with its leader, Kim Jong-un, calling him “Little Rocket Man” and bragging about US military might, sparking fears of a nuclear war.
Trump then proceeded to exchange self-described “love letters” with the dictator, touting his deal-making skills and ability to accomplish on denuclearisation what decades of experts could not. Since then, Trump appears to have largely lost interest as negotiations have foundered. Kim wished Trump a speedy recovery on Friday, North Korean state media reported.
Trump’s unique leadership style has also seen him rankle many US allies by insulting their leaders, accusing their governments of short-changing the US and ripping up existing trade agreements.
Adding to the uncertainty is Trump’s past lack of transparency on health issues – including a sudden trip to the hospital last November that the White House has never explained – and ambiguous statements he has made on whether he would leave office peacefully if he loses next month’s election.
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