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Will Biden’s China, Russia and North Korea woes provide ballast for a Trump return?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 05/01/2022 Neil Newman
  • On the first anniversary of the US Capitol insurrection and ahead of the November midterms, Trump is hoping the stars will align for him
  • Amid Biden's foreign policy struggles, a slimmed-down Kim Jong-un could also complicate matters again for the US

The editorial desk at This Week In Asia kindly thought of me when scouting for ideas for their forward-looking 2022 jamboree of predictions. I enthusiastically took on the challenge, looking for something beyond my ramblings on interest rates which they kindly published.

I got to thinking about Donald Trump and that he has been low key, especially on the political front, and how North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un has been relatively quiet also.

If Kim were to mischievously play with the White House in an election year, might he provide a catalyst for Trump's comeback amid US President Joe Biden's looming foreign policy dirt-nap? Let me explain.

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Supporters of former president Donald Trump are seen outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. File photo: AP © Provided by South China Morning Post Supporters of former president Donald Trump are seen outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. File photo: AP

Revolution

This year is lining up to be a big one for US politics, with the midterm elections on November 8 determining control of Congress. Along the way, both the Biden and Trump camps will attempt to display political strength.

If you think November is a long way off, then just pause for a moment to remember where we were exactly one year ago, on January 6, 2021 - the day the US Capitol was stormed to stop the counting of electoral votes amid talk of a coup, civil war, the 200-year-old beacon of American democracy being extinguished and the lack of vegan meal options in jail.

On the first anniversary of the event, Biden is set to deliver a speech to "speak the truth about what happened", after Trump on Tuesday abruptly postponed a news conference during which he was certain to recite the well-worn script about voter fraud.

Sometime around the end of January, Biden will address a joint session of Congress to deliver the State of the Union. This might occur against the backdrop of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 having rampaged through the US, if Britain's experience is a representative one. That would shoot down any remaining optimism about the Biden administration's pandemic response.

US President Joe Biden. Photo: Reuters © Provided by South China Morning Post US President Joe Biden. Photo: Reuters

Move on up

The first primary leading up to November's midterm elections will be in Texas in March, followed by the battleground states Pennsylvania and North Carolina in mid-May. The latter two may ultimately tip the balance in the Senate in November. The primary for Georgia, one of the most influential states, is at the end of May.

Trump has said he'll announce whether he's running for president again after the midterm elections, and Biden too has hinted that he'd be up for another term - especially if Trump were to enter the race - but I imagine we will see many clues beforehand.

You can't always get what you want

While these events are taking place, Biden will be tiptoeing through the delicate world of foreign policy after a disastrous heavy-footed start on Iran and Afghanistan.

Even with plenty to chew on at home, both Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have spent the holidays circling each other, like a couple of tigers, over the Russian military presence at the Ukrainian border.

Biden tells Ukraine leader US will 'respond decisively' if Russia invades

Biden has approached a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine head-on by offering the Russians the carrot of de-escalation and dialogue, and the stick of sanctions and economic pain. This does not appear to have helped, as the Russians see the American stance as nothing but new threats, and have said that the Russian army will be stationed wherever they please.

If Biden fails to cool down Putin - almost guaranteed - after recently having had limited success in cooling tensions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, then North Korea's Kim may decide he wants a piece of the action to deflect the domestic hunger pangs and once more stir the soup pot between the Americans, South Koreans and the Japanese.

People in New York queue up to take a Covid-19 test on January 4, 2022. Photo: AFP © Provided by South China Morning Post People in New York queue up to take a Covid-19 test on January 4, 2022. Photo: AFP

Higher and higher

At home, no matter how hard Biden has tried, his approval ratings among the public have languished below 50 per cent, with fingers pointed at his poor track record in tackling the economy, immigration, and crime. And that was before the phone call with Putin.

A late-December poll by research consultants Redfield and Wilton noted a substantial disapproval of Biden's handling of most everything. The survey also indicated if it came down to an election today, 44 per cent said they would vote for Trump and 38 per cent said they would vote for Biden. The poll also revealed that a 12 per cent pool of voters, an inordinately large share, are not sure who they'd vote for. That must surely have unnerved the Democrats and encouraged the Republicans.

Trump win in 2024 could spell end of US democracy, warns Hillary Clinton

Trump and oddball NBA star Dennis "The Worm" Rodman are the only two Americans you can point out in a crowd that have gotten to spend time with Kim in the past 10 years.

As mad as it may seem right now at the beginning of 2022, I think Trump will successfully position himself this year to come back for another term, and with Kim getting involved, could help along the way by further adding to Biden's foreign policy woes.

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A sky full of stars

At the tender young age of 37, Kim has for a decade led a nuclear-armed North Korea. In December, he presided over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party to review the policies of 2022 the struggle of the Party, and the next period of DPRK socialist development.

In the lead-up, Kim has for the sake of the country reportedly laid off the Kobe beef, champagne and caviar amid severe food shortages. According to the Korean Central News Agency, an emaciated Kim told everyone they would be eating less until the border with China reopens in 2025 after the pandemic. And although the nation's hearts are breaking at the thought of his weight loss, frankly, he will be better off heading into his 40s a few pounds lighter.

Kim talks food, Covid and defence as North Korea sets focus for 2022

Unfortunately for Kim, old Covid-19 has already proved more unpredictable than was hoped, and it's doubtful if goods will flow freely across China's border by 2025, especially if its zero-Covid policy remains in place. Kim will soon twig that Omicron turns Covid-19 from pandemic to endemic in the West, with endless clusters popping up in China forevermore. With that, Kim may have few options but to rattle his sabre towards the West for attention, and food, which he won't get from China, perhaps by firing off a few missiles over Japanese schools or setting off a test nuke or two again for dramatic effect.

Behind this notion is not just the fact that North Korea is suffering food shortages in silence, but also the observation that Trump seems to be biding his time and looking for an opportunity. Trump has certainly not gone away, but has picked his public appearances carefully after last year's mess at the Capitol.

Supporters of Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trumpers will vote Trump no matter what - it does not matter what the facts are. File photo: AP © Provided by South China Morning Post Supporters of Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trumpers will vote Trump no matter what - it does not matter what the facts are. File photo: AP

Just like paradise

It is not that Trump was particularly successful with his foreign policy, but he did not go head to head with the Russians, he lashed out at the Chinese when the time was right for maximum effect at home, and although he failed to seal the deal with North Korea, for a while at least, things were headed in the right direction.

Trump ripped up the Iran deal for Biden to patch up and although he set the stage for Nato to abandon Afghanistan, Biden ended up with the blood on his hands. Trump has always been very keen to reduce the US influence overseas, especially from the point of view of the costly physical military presence, when arguably it makes more sense to cut deals, sell arms and get out of the way.

Biden says Trump candidacy would motivate him to run again in 2024

Trumpers will vote Trump no matter what - it does not matter what the facts are. And they'll vote for anyone who's on his team too, which suggests we will see more radical candidates in the midterms. That could swing either way for the Democrats.

But with the never-ending pain of watching Biden's foreign policy unfold, those 12 per cent of voters who make up the "don't knows" could lean further towards the Republicans by the fall, especially if they too favour Trump's deals, selling arms and getting America out of the way of a fight rather than going into yet another one.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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