On Sunday, the Financial Times released the transcript of an exclusive interview with U.S. President Donald Trump. The interview is well worth a read in anticipation of the upcoming summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate later this week. In the interview, Trump discusses U.S.-China relations and offers some insight into how he’s thinking about the North Korean problem, which will no doubt feature prominently in talks with Xi — with or without the rude interruption of a sixth North Korean nuclear test or a new ballistic missile launch to coincide with the first face-to-face meeting of these two leaders.
“Yes, we will talk about North Korea. And China has great influence over North Korea,” Trump says of the Mar-a-Lago summit. He adds that “China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone.” Critically, in the highest-level suggestion of unilateral U.S. action against North Korea since U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at the idea during his trips Japan and South Korea, Trump said that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
Trump shows other signs of mulling over potentially unannounced preemptive action against Pyongyang in the interview. When asked about addressing North Korea without China’s help, Trump’s mind drifts to talking about ongoing U.S. campaigns in the Middle East. Without provocation from the FT interviewer, Trump says the following: “I am not the United States of the past where we tell you where we are going to hit in the Middle East.” That’s far from evidence that his administration is on the verge of taking dramatic action against North Korea pending the conclusion of its ongoing policy review, but Trump’s associative manner of speech is often telling.
Finally, the interview adds a couple more pieces of evidence to two aspects of Trump-ian thinking about international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. First, as Trump has shown in the past, economic and security issues are linked like never before in U.S. foreign policy. For instance, Trump hints that “trade is the incentive” for China to cooperate with the United States on North Korea, suggesting that the U.S. may retaliate economically against China (with tariffs; not something like secondary sanctions) for its noncooperation on North Korea.
Secondly, Trump once again publicly questions the value of U.S. alliances in the interview — a running rhetorical theme of both his campaign and his presidency. “Alliances have not always worked out very well for us,” Trump notes, without specifying which alliances he means specifically. “I believe in relationships. And I believe in partnerships. But alliances have not always worked out very well for us,” he adds.
Overall, the interview is suggestive of a challenging meeting ahead for Trump and Xi at Mar-a-Lago. It makes for interesting reading when paired with the New York Times‘ look at the sausage-making of the Mar-a-Lago summit, which centers primarily on Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law with little non-business expertise in Asia or China, and Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States. Cui has reportedly been proffering draft U.S.-China joint statements for Kushner’s consideration, suggesting that whatever document comes out of the Mar-a-Lago summit will be carefully manicured and massaged to leave U.S.-China watchers with a sense of a comfortable relationship.
The real room for friction, however, sits in the as-yet-unknown interpersonal dynamic between Trump and Xi. Trump may choose to drive a hard bargain for the Chinese president in Mar-a-Lago. After all, on Twitter last week, he said he anticipates a “very difficult” meeting with China.