In remarks at the White House on Wednesday, President Donald Trump updated the American people on the “tremendous success” of his 12-day tour to five Asian nations, calling it “historic.”
A day earlier, before leaving the Philippines, the final stop of his trip, to return to the US, he also proudly declared that his first journey to the region as president was “tremendously successful.”
But it seems most of the US mainstream media, along with many former diplomats and Asia experts, disagreed. Some called his Asia tour, which also included stops in Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam, “disastrous,” while for others the outing “was hardly the success he says it was.”
Some even took the view that the US leader was “humbled in China,” while a former senior official in his predecessor Barack Obama’s administration said that instead of making America great again, Trump was “making China great again.”
Yet while his tour wasn’t as tremendous a success as Trump claimed, it wasn’t a total disaster as some feared before his departure or claimed during and after his trip. In some respects, it was rather successful, especially if compared with his maiden overseas presidential trip (to the Middle East and Europe in May), during which he made several diplomatic faux pas.
This time, apart from some minor incidents, such as during a complicated crossed-hands group handshake in a photo opportunity with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines, his tour went smoothly.
For a leader who is often erratic and gaffe-prone, that he stuck to the script and behaved responsibly throughout his stay in Asia was in itself an achievement – all the more so when taking into account that during this lengthy trip, which involved eight flights to, from and around Asia, the 71-year-old man had a grueling schedule, with numerous ceremonies and meetings.
George H W Bush was the last US president to make a similar long journey to Asia when he traveled to the continent in 1992. Yet the then 68-year-old leader ended the trip by vomiting in the lap of Kiichi Miyazawa, Japan’s prime minister.
For a leader who is often erratic and gaffe-prone, that Trump stuck to the script and behaved responsibly throughout his stay in Asia was in itself an achievement
What’s more, unlike on his Europe trip, during which he was treated indifferently by the leaders of America’s allies who gathered in Brussels for a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in Sicily for a Group of Seven summit, Trump was warmly and grandly received by Asian leaders.
For instance, China rolled out a redder-than-red carpet for him during the so-called “state visit-plus.” He was apparently the first foreign leader to be invited to dine with a Chinese Communist leader inside the Forbidden City since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Some may argue that Beijing gave Trump such grandiose treatment because it wanted to satisfy his ego and, consequently, to get some key acknowledgements and concessions from him. That seems to be true. The US president, often regarded as the leader of the free world, heaped praise on China and its authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, calling the latter “a very special man.”
Rather than criticizing the rising superpower for “raping” the US economy as he had on the presidential-election campaign trail, he also gave the communist country “great credit” for taking advantage of the US in trade. Instead of pointing the finger at China, he blamed his predecessors for America’s enormous trade deficit (more than US$350 billion in 2016) with the world’s largest goods exporter.
Still, despite the warm reception he received, the trade deals he struck and the main points he made during the trip, Trump wasn’t humiliated in Beijing and left China and four other countries empty-handed.
Some success on core issues
As he stated on Wednesday, he went to Asia with three core objectives. One of these was to “insist on fair and reciprocal trade.”
In almost all his pronouncements in Beijing and elsewhere, such as in his joint press statement with Xi Jinping and his speech to the business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, he made clear that he believed America’s trade with countries in the region, especially China, was hugely unfair, unequal and unsustainable and that such s chronic imbalance must be corrected.
Many rightly point out – and perhaps don’t like – that Trump is a transactional president. But for a leader primarily elected to put his country first, his posture on trade seemed to work well for him and the US.
During the trip, he helped to reach a total of $300 billion worth of trade and investment agreements, including $250 billion worth of deals with China, with most of these involving the sale of US products to China and other Asian nations or the latter’s investing in the US.
As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged, the agreed deals remain “pretty small” compared with the massive trade deficit the US is suffering. However, if the US wants to balance its trade, it must begin somewhere, and these deals may represent important first steps forward.
Last Friday, the day Trump left Beijing, China announced the removal of its cap on foreign ownership in its banks and asset-management companies. While China undoubtedly was pursuing its own interests to liberalize its financial market, the timing was not a mere coincidence. Trump’s call for reciprocity and his flattery/courtesy while in Beijing might well have contributed to this opening.
In fact, as noted, when it comes to calling for fairness and reciprocity in economic relationships, Trump has a point. Working toward or achieving this would benefit not only the US but also many Asian countries that are facing huge economic imbalances with China.
For all Xi’s calls for economic globalization to “more open, more inclusive, more balanced, more equitable and more beneficial to all,” China is not a fully free economy and enjoys huge trade surpluses not just with the US but also with many other countries. All of the ASEAN member states except Singapore currently have substantial trade deficits with their giant neighbor.
While it is still too early to assess the impact of his Asian tour on the North Korea issue, Trump somewhat succeeded in uniting Asian countries “against the nuclear menace posed by the North Korean regime,” which was another core objective of his trip.
Japan, South Korea, China and many other countries, including Vietnam, a communist-run nation that traditionally has friendly ties with Pyongyang, all agreed about the need for the denuclearization of North Korea.
In their joint statement, Trump and his Vietnamese counterpart “expressed grave concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs and tests” and “agreed on the importance of the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Apart from tweeting that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was “short and fat” while he was in Vietnam, Trump adopted a measured but determined posture toward the North Korea issue throughout the trip.
That Pyongyang didn’t behave provocatively while Trump was on the Asian soil was also worth noting.
On Wednesday, just a day after Trump completed his Asia tour, China announced that it would send a special envoy to North Korea, its communist ally, this Friday. Though the real reasons behind this trip remain unclear, its timing is notable. Trump’s diplomacy and pressure might have influenced Beijing, prompting it to open talks with Pyongyang.
The third objective of Trump’s tour was “to strengthen America’s alliances and economic partnerships” in what he termed “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
As Susan Rice, former president Obama’s national security adviser and one of Trump’s critics, acknowledged, Trump had “solid performances in Japan and Korea, where [his] relatively measured words left key allies reassured of the [United States’] commitment to their security.”
While in Manila for ASEAN summits, he also had meetings with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that his country’s relations with the US “are growing very rapidly with a great deal of speed.” Diplomats from these four democracies also met in the Philippine capital to discuss key regional issues. Their meeting raised a view that a “quadrilateral” alliance could be established to counter China’s rising regional ambitions.
In meetings with the leaders of the 10 ASEAN countries, Trump assured them that the US “remains committed to ASEAN’s central role as a regional forum for total cooperation.” In particular, he said he wanted America’s partners in the region “to be strong, independent and prosperous, in control of their own destinies, and satellites to no one.” Such comments could also be aimed at China, as it is often maintained that Beijing has sought to divide and rule the Southeast Asian regional organization and used its economic largesse to pull some of its weakest members into its orbit.
Like it or not, Trump’s visit to the Philippines and his friendship with its leader, Rodrigo Duterte, also restored the United States’ ties with one of its key regional allies. At the end of the Obama administration, US-Philippines relations reached a low ebb, with Manila deciding to turn away from Washington and toward Beijing.
Against this backdrop, it seems a bit of an exaggeration to argue that Trump’s Asia trip “made China great again.” Many Asian countries – from America’s traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia to its important partners, such as India, Singapore and Vietnam – still want stronger US engagement with the region.
A major setback
However, Trump’s rejection of multilateral trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and insistence on bilateral deals throughout his trip were a major setback. This could greatly damage the interests of not only America’s key Asian allies and partners but also of the US itself.
Trump’s insistence on bilateral agreements, though only in trade, goes against the raison d’être of APEC, ASEAN and its key forums, such as the East Asia Summit. All these arrangements were established mainly because Asian countries wanted to deal plurilaterally with key economic and security issues in the region.
By asking America’s Asian allies to be united to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat while deciding to go alone on trade, Trump is behaving contradictorily and hypocritically.
If he obstinately, if not sightlessly, maintains a bilateral approach to trade, sooner or later, China, which has already proactively promoted its multinational economic initiatives, will take the regional economic leadership. Losing its economic influence will also result in making America’s role in regional security and other key issues weaker.