Israel might start annexing territory claimed by the Palestinians. Taiwan is pushing for a historic free trade agreement. North Korea is desperate for sanctions relief. And Poland is itching to seal the deal on a “Fort Trump” to bolster its defenses against Russia with thousands more U.S. troops.
As his poll numbers sink, governments that have allied themselves with Donald Trump’s presidency are racing to clinch favorable deals they see as unlikely under a President Joe Biden.
Foreign leaders are accustomed to bracing for sudden swings in American politics. But Trump has been so unusual in his willingness to deviate from mainstream U.S. foreign policy nostrums that his potential departure is already inducing a geopolitical scramble rarely seen in modern memory.
“This is a whole different level because the type of thing Trump would accept no president would have accepted ever before,” said Thomas Wright, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. He said foreign leaders trying to make gains from the potential final months of the Trump era need to balance how to do that and “not totally aggravate the next president, because it’s at least 50-50 now that Biden will be president.”
Israel: The allure of annexation
One foreign leader following the U.S. election especially closely is Benjamin Netanyahu, who has benefited tremendously from having a kindred spirit in the White House. Under Trump, the Israeli prime minister has seen the U.S. move its embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and generally embrace Israel’s narrative in its long-running conflict with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu is at present considering annexing parts of the West Bank in the coming months. Trump aides met Tuesday to weigh how much support they are willing to offer such a move, an administration official confirmed.
The West Bank is claimed by Palestinians for a future state, and many countries, including key Arab states friendly to the U.S., oppose Israeli annexation. In an extraordinary direct appeal, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ influential ambassador to Washington, recently urged Israel to reconsider the idea in an op-ed in a major Isaeli newspaper.
Netanyahu, emboldened by a Trump peace proposal released earlier this year that was heavily weighted in Israel’s favor, has signaled he plans to start by annexing areas of the West Bank where Isaeli settlers already live. Israeli officials describe the idea as “applying Israeli sovereignty” to territory they refer to as Judea and Samaria, while critics decry it as an illegal land grab.
“This is a historic opportunity that they have with Trump to push through annexation, which they see as irreversible,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Middle East hand in the Obama administration. “They know that if they get Joe Biden this is not an option that’s available to them.”
Biden, who as vice president under former President Barack Obama clashed repeatedly with Netanyahu, may reverse any U.S. recognition of annexation announced under Trump. But it’s a sensitive issue for Biden, who has long cast himself as a stalwart supporter of Israel. When asked whether Biden would rescind any recognition of annexation, an aide said merely: “Vice President Biden opposes it now and will oppose it as president.”
The Israeli embassy declined comment. Neither the White House nor the State Department offered comment for this article.
Poland: Eastern promises
In Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party — which has a populist, conservative bent that its opponents paint as authoritarian — Trump has found something of a soulmate.
Poland was one of the first European countries Trump visited upon taking office. This week, he’s welcoming its president, Andrzej Duda, to the White House. The visit comes just days before Duda is up for reelection, and it could give him a boost in the polls. It’s also expected to coincide with an announcement on Trump’s plans to strengthen U.S. military ties with Poland, which could include additional U.S. troops on Polish soil.
At least some of the 9,500 troops permanently based in Germany several hundred miles to the east could move to Poland as part of a drawdown Trump announced abruptly last week. National security adviser Robert O’Brien wrote in a Monday op-ed that the troops may redeploy to other countries in Europe, but they also may head to the Indo-Pacific, where the U.S. is beefing up its military presence to deter China, or return to the U.S.
On a call with reporters ahead of Duda’s visit on Tuesday, senior administration officials declined to give details about the move, or progress on plans for “Fort Trump.”
Poland has courted Trump for months, even floating the idea of naming a military base in his honor. The relationship is mutually beneficial: Trump enjoys broad public support in Poland, and appreciates Warsaw’s commitment to meeting NATO defense spending targets, buying American military equipment, and cooperation on energy partnerships. Warsaw, meanwhile, appreciates the Pentagon’s investment in key European military infrastructure and is keen for increased U.S. troop presence on Polish soil. It doesn’t hurt that Poland, which declined to comment for this story, provides Trump an easy contrast with a Germany that has resisted ramping up its defense spending.
“It’s hard to name too many European countries that don’t have a ruptured relationship with the Trump administration. Poland is an exception,” said Julianne Smith, a former Obama appointee and top Pentagon official who described the decision to host Duda at the White House days before his election as “shocking.”
An agreement on Fort Trump or increased U.S. troop presence may be far from certain, as there are some complex issues to settle — who will foot the bill, for example — and the Poles are tough negotiators. But, Smith said, “the Poles do want to take advantage of the fact that they have a U.S. president that is intent on rewarding them for spending a lot on defense, and they want to see what they can get out of that.”
China: It’s complicated
Beijing sees both pluses and minuses in a Trump loss this November.
The Trump administration has taken a hard line on an array of issues related to China, whose ruling Communist Party U.S. officials see as a long-term threat to the United States. Trump has spoken warmly of Xi Jingping, his Chinese counterpart. But he’s also imposed steep tariffs on Chinese goods, while his aides have traveled the world urging governments to cut various ties to Beijing, especially when it comes to relying on Chinese technology.
Biden is expected to maintain a tough line on China as well, but analysts say he’s more likely to try to at least improve the trade relationship and see where the two countries can cooperate. On issues such as climate change, as well as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which began in China, Biden is expected to try to coordinate with Beijing.
Some in Chinese officialdom, however, reportedly see long-term benefits in Trump winning a second term. They argue that four more years of Trump will further damage America’s global standing and fray its alliances with other countries. That could benefit China as it seeks to increase its global influence. The Biden camp, too, says that Chinese leaders see Trump as an easy mark they can outmaneuver on trade and one who cares little about human rights, where Beijing is vulnerable to international pressure.
One government that has reaped the benefits of Trump’s generally hardline stance on China? Taiwan. The U.S. and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations, and officially the U.S. recognizes the regime in Beijing as the government of China. But the U.S. and Taiwan have strengthened their quasi-official ties over the last four years with increased weapons sales and high-level talks that have infuriated Beijing, which has threatened to “smash” any move by Taipei toward independence.
To shore up Taipei’s defenses against the threat from China’s stepped-up military drills in the region, the Trump administration has made significant strides in normalizing weapons sales to the island. Rather than putting together a large package every few years, U.S. officials are moving toward approving individual sales more frequently, for instance greenlighting a controversial F-16 fighter jet sale last year and more recently announcing a potential deal for torpedoes. U.S. officials are now pushing selling even more advanced equipment and conducting joint naval exercises.
In addition to locking in additional weapons sales, Taipei is looking to take advantage of a historically strong relationship with the United States to clinch a free trade agreement before November. Already, Taiwan is the United States’ 11th largest trading partner, a spokesperson for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington, told POLITICO.
“Over the past four years, we’ve made immeasurable progress in the areas of security, trade, and international space. Both sides have characterized the relationship as at its strongest point ever,” Pan said. “As we look forward, we continue to seek progress towards a free trade agreement.”
“Our economies are highly complementary to one another. And a trade deal would be strategically significant given our unique position in the region,” Pan continued.
The U.S. has historically worked with Taiwan on trade and treated Taipei as a separate customs territory, said Randy Schriver, formerly the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official. A free trade agreement, while unlikely by November due to the potential congressional backlash, would be “an upgrade rather than something radically new and different,” he said.
But Biden campaign staff have signaled their view that the U.S. would need to take proactive steps to rebuild the relationship with China, Schriver said. This would likely mean diminished support for military sales and cooperation, as well as less overt support for Taipei politically and diplomatically, in a Biden administration, he noted.
“They see the need for more caution, more reassurance to Beijing and less visible support to Taiwan,” Schriver said.
Saudi Arabia: Touching the Orb
The desert kingdom has found its standing in Washington both boosted and damaged during the Trump era. Riyadh was Trump’s first foreign destination after taking office, marking the first time a U.S. president has chosen Saudi Arabia as the first stop on a maiden trip. During the historic visit, Trump met with top officials, announced billions of dollars in weapons sales, and engaged in a bizarre photo op while touching a mysterious glowing orb.
While Saudi Arabia remains a key partner in the fight against terrorism, a critical hedge against Iran and a lucrative customer for U.S. military equipment, it is unlikely that a Biden administration will be as willing as Trump to brush aside human rights abuses such as those linked to the war in Yemen, the jailing of dissidents and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“If Biden wins, they will be on the political outs,” one former Trump administration official said of the Saudi government, which did not return a request for comment.
Saudi Arabia is trying to clinch sensitive weapons sales, such as additional munitions and fighter jets, before November, the former official said.
North Korea: Love hurts
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Trump have met three times face-to-face — historic gatherings that shattered diplomatic precedent and boosted Kim’s international profile. In 2018, Trump got Kim to agree to a vague declaration calling for denuclearization, and the two have exchanged occasional letters, with Trump at one point declaring they’d fallen “in love.”
But little of substance has happened since that first summit. In fact, analysts believe that North Korea has merely expanded its nuclear arsenal despite U.S. appeals to negotiate away those weapons, making it an even greater threat to the United States. North Korea also has resumed missile tests after a temporary moratorium.
Yet, Kim hasn’t managed to convince Trump to lift bruising economic sanctions that have, by some accounts, led to food shortages. That failure appears to be a source of deep frustration for the young autocrat; North Korea’s state media has recently released several statements bashing senior Trump administration officials.
Earlier this month, a senior North Korean official hinted that his government was done trying to engage the Americans, and that even the “slim ray of optimism” had “faded away into a dark nightmare.”
“Never again will we provide the U.S. chief executive with another package to be used for achievements without receiving any returns,” Ri Son Gwon, the foreign minister, said, according to North Korean state media. “Nothing is more hypocritical than an empty promise.”
Still, given that Biden served in the previous U.S. administration, whose policy of “strategic patience” amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, it’s possible Kim could make a last-ditch appeal to Trump to make history and lift sanctions. Or — far more likely, analysts say — North Korea could stage missile and nuclear tests or other provocations to send a message to whoever wins that Pyongyang cannot be ignored.
“If Trump fails in the election, they know that Biden would be a difficult counterpart,” an Asian diplomat said of the North Koreans.
It’s not clear, however, how Biden can rein in a North Korean regime that has bedeviled presidents of both parties for generations and may soon be able to hit U.S. cities with nuclear weapons.
Biden has said he won’t meet Kim without preconditions. For its part, North Korea has called Biden a “rabid dog” that must be “beaten to death.”