China, Syria, North Korea, and the Trump Doctrine


A return of the axis of evil?

Marcus Noland (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Flexibility, aka "flip-flopping," is emerging as a trademark of Trump Administration policy. The Administration’s rapidly evolving stances toward China, Syria, and North Korea are a case in point. (And to be clear, flip-flopping isn't a categorical negative.)

Let’s start with Syria. Having campaigned on an “America First” platform of avoiding Middle East entanglements, President Trump’s decision to strike Syria on April 6 to punish Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons in an attack on Syrian civilians was a significant about-turn in both policy and rhetoric. Trump’s comments following the strike invoked international norms (in this case against the use of chemical weapons), and implicitly the human rights principle of the responsibility to protect. Trump stated, “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.” He then called on all civilized nations “to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.” He even appended “and the entire world” to the standard “God bless America” refrain at the end of his comments.

The Syria strike rhetorically elevated the importance of upholding international norms and human rights as a casus belli, even if the bellum was a one-off strike. It is unclear if Trump will continue this tack but he has nevertheless set a new precedent, and one which holds relevance to the situation in North Korea. As noted in previous posts (here and here), North Korea and Syria have a long history of cooperation spanning decades. They have shared technology, weapons, and there have even been reports that North Korean soldiers have been fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria. North Korea transferred nuclear technology to Syria that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in 2007 and Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il-sung enjoyed a long cooperative relationship.

Syria and North Korea also hold the unique distinction of being the only known state actors that have used nerve agents against their own in the last few months (see Kim Jong-nam case). It is notable that in his statement following the strike, Trump lumped Assad in with terrorists. His comments are a shift from campaign rhetoric, when he let Assad off the hook, focusing instead on terrorist groups that are fighting Assad.

Syria has, in fact, been on the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list since 1979 and North Korea, which was removed from the list in 2008 following a deal with the Bush administration, may be re-joining them soon. Last month, Ted Cruz introduced a Senate bill to complement a House bill that would require the Secretary of State to review whether North Korea should be re-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. (Steph Haggard looks at the new sanctions legislation options here; Josh Stanton does a deep dive on the bills here.)

Trump has not framed his approach toward solving the North Korea nuclear weapons problem in terms of international norms, nor protecting the non-proliferation regime, but his comments regarding Syria indicate a willingness to shift—at least rhetorically—in that direction. This could even extend to human rights.

But doubts about any fundamental change of heart were raised when the President indicated in a tweet early Sunday morning that he was not labeling China a currency manipulator—a bedrock campaign promise—in order to secure Beijing’s help with solving the North Korea problem. In his interview with Fox Business News he claimed that, “China will do much better on trade if they help us with North Korea.” Taken at face value, it is a remarkable linkage of trade policy and unrelated foreign policy goals which would be in keeping with Trump’s strong proclivity towards transactional relations. Or it could simply be that China is not a currency manipulator under current US law (indeed, if anything, it is intervening to prop up its currency, not devalue it to gain unfair advantage in trade) and the invocation of alleged Chinese cooperation on North Korea was simply a face-saving gesture to mask the bankruptcy of the Administration’s trade policy.  

In the Fox Business News interview, Trump went so far as to say that upon notifying Xi at Mar-a-Lago that he’d ordered a missile strike on Syria, Xi indicated tacit approval of the action. This was not the exact message communicated by the Chinese MOFA, but as Julian Ku points out, China’s refusal to more clearly condemn the attack is a surprising stand-down. This stand-down was reinforced the next week by China’s abstention vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s chemical attack, forcing Russia to cast the only veto among the P5. So maybe there is something to the idea of US-China cooperation.

(KCNA, unsurprisingly, has said that the Syria strike is further evidence of their own vulnerability if they were ever to negotiate their nuclear program away, in effect, the “Libya defense.”)

So, responsibility to protect, spur-of-the-moment attention-driven expediency, or something else? As they used to say in those old IBM commercials, “you make the call.” And to think, people are talking about a “Trump Doctrine.”

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