In Abrupt Shift, Trump Warms to China and NATO, Sours on Russia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
Trump, Xi, China, Russia, NATO, Syria
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting last Friday at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

After less than three months in office, President Donald Trump has abruptly shifted his stance on an array of foreign-policy issues, from the U.S. relationship with Russia and China to the value of the NATO alliance.

The president, who ran for the White House on a pledge to shake up the status quo in Washington, repeatedly lashed out at China during the campaign, accusing Beijing of being a “grand champion” of currency manipulation.

Candidate Trump also dismissed the NATO military alliance as obsolete and said that he hoped to build warmer ties with Russia.

But at a White House news conference and in a newspaper interview on Wednesday, he offered starkly different views on those issues, saying his relationship with Moscow was souring while ties with Beijing were improving. He also lavished praise on NATO, saying it was adapting to changing global threats.

“I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” the president said as he stood at a news conference alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the White House East Room on Wednesday.

The reversals on Russia and NATO could reassure U.S. allies in Europe who were rattled by Trump’s overtures toward Moscow during the campaign. But the president’s talk of “bonding” with Chinese President Xi Jinping could sow confusion in Asia, where U.S. allies are fearful of a rising China.

The president’s apparent shifts toward a more conventional foreign policy came amid infighting within his administration that has lately seen a decline in the influence of political operatives, mainly his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Six months ago, candidate Trump suggested he was eager for an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said last September.

On Wednesday, however, the president said he had growing concerns about Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia,” said Trump, who ordered the firing of U.S. cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield last week to punish Assad for suspected use of poison gas in Syria’s civil war.

While criticizing Russia on Wednesday, Trump said he and Xi had bonded during the Chinese president’s visit to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where they dined together with their wives and held talks.

Ahead of that visit, Trump had predicted “difficult” discussions on trade.

The improving ties with Beijing were underscored when Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview on Wednesday that he would not declare China a currency manipulator as he had pledged to do on his first day in office.

The president’s evolving foreign policy appears to reflect less of the influence of his campaign team and more the views of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, all of whom are deeply skeptical of Russia.

Trump’ former national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, was forced to resign on Feb. 13 for contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States before Trump took office.