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Five things John Bolton revealed on Trump's Asia policy

From trade deal to Xinjiang, tell-all book paints boss as erratic

JohnBolton Photo: AFP

/NOVOSTIVL/ A new memoir by John Bolton, former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, made waves this week for its behind-the-scenes accounts depicting the U.S. leader as conducting American diplomacy according to his own whims and interests, notably when it comes to Asian affairs.This article appeared in Asia Nikkei.

Drawing from Bolton's 17 months in the White House as one of the people closest to Trump's foreign policy thinking, "The Room Where It Happened" is due out in days but faces a potential legal blockage by the Trump administration, which has characterized the book as full of falsehoods and spin.

Here are five of Bolton's claims to note in relation to Trump's approach to Asia.

Trump told Xi building camps in Xinjiang was exactly the right thing to do

At the Group of 20 summit in Osaka last June, Trump responded sympathetically to Chinese President Xi Jinping's explanation of why China is building more detention camps for the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang, remarking to Xi that he should go ahead with it and that it was exactly the right thing to do, Bolton writes, citing an interpreter present.

The revelation, made public as excerpts and quotations in American media, came just before Trump signed into law Wednesday a bill for sanctions on Chinese officials involved in mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Apart from that law, to date Trump has largely refrained from criticizing Beijing's mass detentions of what is popularly estimated at more than 1 million Uighurs.

Trump sought help from Xi for election as he negotiated trade at G-20

Also in Osaka, Trump told Xi how crucial Chinese purchases of American agricultural products were to his own reelection, which relies largely on votes from farm states, according to Bolton.

When Xi agreed that the two sides should resume talks, Trump praised his Chinese counterpart as the "greatest leader in Chinese history," per Bolton's account.

Shortly before the summit, Trump told Xi by phone that he "missed" the Chinese leader and that the trade deal was the most popular thing he had been involved in and would give him a big political boost, according to Bolton. This was about a month after U.S.-China trade talks collapsed on Beijing backtracking from earlier commitments.

The book also mentions that Trump offered to lighten the penalties on ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications hardware giant that had agreed to plead guilty for violating Iran and North Korea sanctions, saying he would be "doing this because of Xi," Bolton writes.

These exchanges were preceded by another conversation at Buenos Aires' G-20 summit in December 2018, where Xi remarked that the U.S. had too many elections and that he did not want to switch away from Trump, to which the latter "nodded approvingly, Bolton writes.

According to the book, Trump also told Xi - who changed the Chinese constitution in 2018 to eliminate presidential term limits - that Americans were clamoring for him to amend America's constitution to serve more than two terms.

Trump refused to speak out on Hong Kong and Tiananmen

Trump on several occasions refused to publicly criticize Beijing's human rights record, including its encroachment on freedoms in Hong Kong and its 1989 crackdown on peaceful protesters at Tiananmen Square, the book says.

Bolton quotes Trump as saying that "I don't want to get involved" and "we have human rights problems too" when millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets last year to protest Beijing's extradition bill.

On the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen around that time, Trump refused to issue a public statement for fear that it would sabotage his China trade deal. "Who cares about it? I'm trying to make a deal. I don't want anything," he said, according to Bolton.

Trump's meetings with North Korea's Kim focused more on image than substance

As the first sitting American president in history to meet with a North Korean leader, Trump deliberated on his engagement with Kim Jong Un in publicity terms - talking of signing a "substance-free communique" and having a "press conference to declare victory" to call it a day - rather than real nuclear concerns, by Bolton's characterization.

Separately, Trump also repeatedly questioned the need for a U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, despite Bolton's attempts to explain the nuclear danger there.

Out of his fixation on forging a personal friendship with Kim, Trump insisted on giving Kim some American gifts, against the country's own sanctions rules, which eventually had to be waived, per Bolton.

One anecdote in the book goes that following Trump's meeting with Kim in Singapore two summers ago, the U.S. president later pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on gifting Kim an autographed copy of Elton John's "Rocket Man" -- a derogatory nickname Trump had used for the North Korean leader but later tried to spin as an affectionate one. "Getting this CD to Kim remained a high priority for several months," Bolton writes.

Trump failed to truly comprehend America's alliances in Asia

In a meeting with Japan to discuss trade, when told the importance of the alliance between the two countries, Trump invoked the attack on Pearl Harbor almost 80 years ago, his ex-national security adviser says.

The remark exasperated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The meeting, which grew tense from there, broke up shortly.

Bolton also describes Trump as "particularly dyspeptic" about Taiwan, due to frequently socializing with Wall Streeters who had gotten rich off mainland investments.

Trump would often point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say "this is Taiwan," then point to the historic Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and say "this is China," Bolton offers in an anecdote.