Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

In the 1970s con-artist movie The Sting, the bad guy is scammed out of his money and he never even knows it. This is Trump is in Asia. The man who sees himself as the consummate deal-maker, the player who believes that “winning” is everything and that the world is basically a zero-sum game is being played for a fool.

It is easy to see why Trump loves to go overseas. It’s the only time he’s really treated like a president – or at least his idea of how a president should be treated. It’s all the kind of adulation he craves: red carpets, state dinners, speeches, and, above all, photo ops that show him being masterful and respected.

He also loves being around strong, authoritarian types whose word is taken as law and whose orders are never contested. Tough guys like Putin or Erdogan or Saudi royalty. And when they welcome him into the circle of fellow tough guys, Trump feels validated.

Trump is enthralled with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, perhaps because Trump wants to see in himself what he thinks Xi is: the perfect authoritarian

So it is easy to bamboozle Trump. Abe in Japan stroked his ego, taking him golfing and serving him hamburgers. He got to make a no-brainer, take-that-North-Korea speech to South Korea’s national assembly. He almost got to do the classic DMZ photo op, staring through binoculars at the land of his favorite (and perhaps only) dictator-he-loves-to-hate, but bad weather (probably a Democrat) ruined his adventure.

Xi plays the trade card

But it was in China where Trump was really handed his hat. For some reason, Trump is enthralled with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, perhaps because Trump wants to see in himself what he thinks Xi is: the perfect authoritarian. Xi won Trump over earlier this year during his visit to Mar-a-Lago, over a “beautiful piece of cake.” The love affair has not yet abated.

Trump lavished praise on Xi while he was in Beijing. He criticized America’s trade deficit with China but said that it was America’s, not China’s, fault (talk about an apology tour!). He basically handed the North Korean problem over to Beijing (and we know how that will likely turn out). And he never brought up human rights.

Basically, Trump the president has walked back nearly all the criticism of China made by Trump the candidate. And yet Xi has given nothing in return. Trump and his team ballyhooed the signing of $250 billion in trade and investment deals with China while in Beijing, but most of these deals are non-binding “memorandums of understanding” which may not materialize for years, if ever.

Another deal permits China to jointly develop a liquefied natural gas project in Alaska. In other words, Trump is permitting Chinese state-run enterprises to get their hands on US natural resources.

Trump’s continuing abandonment of Asia to China

Xi has lately become even more powerful, having emerged from the recent 19th Chinese Communist Party conference in an even stronger position. His thoughts are enshrined in the Chinese constitution, along with “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” He is undoing China’s post-Mao tradition of collective leadership and may refuse to retire after his second term as party leader expires in 2022, as is customary.

Trump, meanwhile, continues to lose ground in his own country. His approval ratings are in the cellar, and Republicans lost “bigly” in recent elections. Trump’s legislative agenda is practically DOA. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election edges ever closer to Trump’s inner circle.

If Trump looks weak, it is because he is. And for the Asia-Pacific, this is a matter of utmost importance, for it involves nothing less than who will be the linchpin of Asian security in the future, China or the United States?

Can US leadership be restored?

According to Evan Medeiros, former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under president Barack Obama and now with the Eurasia Group, the United States is central to Asian security and stability. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Medeiros said the United States is the “anchor power” in Asia, because of “the rules, institutions and values it represents.”

Trump, he says, “fundamentally calls that into question when he’s praising the Chinese political system – and not getting much in exchange.” He subsequently raises the question that, “in Trump’s effort to ingratiate himself with Xi, is he inadvertently ceding American primacy to China?”

It’s not too late. The US’s 70-year leadership in Asia has a lot of inertia, and it should be able to survive Trump’s inattention or outright sabotage. But it requires more than the usual blather about “The Generals” – that supposedly wiser heads like Defense Secretary James Mattis or National Security Advisor HR McMaster will somehow reign in Trump’s worst instincts. The organs of US foreign and security policy – the Departments of State and Defense especially – need to be properly filled out with experts and policymakers. A real “Trump doctrine” could and should be formulated, but it should not be based on the tweets and brain-burps of a man easily flattered and sweet-talked by manipulative autocrats.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

Richard A. Bitzinger

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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