President Donald Trump’s joint statement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday provided few specifics and no binding commitments, but it most likely set in motion a series of events that could unseat the US as the dominant world power.
Trump, going above and beyond the statement on paper, promised to halt joint military exercises with South Korea. For the US, its 30,000 or so troops in South Korea represent a foothold on the Asian mainland and a major check on China’s growing global ambitions.
South Korea and the US forces themselves were apparently shocked by the news, but both North Korea and China seized on this concession.
Kim, according to North Korean media, said “to achieve peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and realize its denuclearization,” North Korea and the US “should commit themselves to refraining from antagonizing with each other.”
To China, the agreement sounded like one it had been pushing all along, a “suspension for suspension,” in which the US stops military drills with South Korea in exchange for North Korea halting its missile and nuclear tests.
If North Korea’s illegal nuclear program forced the US military to stop training with its ally, then it sends a powerful message to leaders everywhere: The US can be blackmailed with nukes.
Without military drills, the massive installation of troops will wither. Already, North Korea has criticized the US and South Korea’s military exercises, saying they’re not helpful for peace talks.
China is set to overtake the US as the world’s dominant power within the coming decades. As China embraces some capitalism and uses strong-arm tactics to become a technological power while modernizing the world’s biggest armed forces, it falls on the US to reassure its allies in Asia and around the world that international order will stand up to Chinese hegemony. The US military in Asia remains vital to that task.
But the new epoch envisioned here by Trump and Kim may be one in which the US loses its grip on Asia, and then the world, and the new future will most likely be ruled from Beijing, not Washington.