Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Assessing Trump's Trip to Asia

                                                                           Photo: CNN

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump embarked on a five-nation trip across Asia, a journey that spanned nearly two weeks--his longest trip abroad since becoming president. As we've come to expect by now, his "excellent adventure" was a mixed bag of good and bad elements.

First, the good stuff. Because of the narrative of low expectations that continually surround Trump and his foreign policy, this trip could be seen as at least a partial success, even though there wasn't a breakthrough in policies or ideas. To begin, Trump seemed to be able to build rapport with the leaders of the countries he visited. He hit it off with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, with the latter flattering him with “Donald & Shinzo” baseball caps. In Seoul, Trump reiterated America's commitment to South Korea. In China, Trump seemed to build a good personal relationship with Xi Jinping, whom he called “a very special man.” Trump even showed Xi a video of his granddaughter speaking Chinese and singing for “Grandpa Xi.” Trump also said the right words in Vietnam, assuring his host about America's commitment in the South China Sea. And finally, in the Philippines, President Duterte serenaded Trump, while Trump exclaimed that he had “a great relationship” with Duterte.

In short, Trump was on his best behavior, courting no controversy while building rapport with the leaders he needs to work with. Unfortunately, Trump appears to think that if he has good personal relations with foreign leaders, like Xi, Abe, Duterte, and Moon, then the US automatically and by definition has good, harmonious ties with these foreign nations and that any divergent national interests at stake thereby wash away. But that's a very dubious belief.

For instance, no matter how well Trump was feted by Xi, the US and China still are loggerheads over a number of issues--most notably, over which great power, the US or China, will dominate in Asia now and in the future. Another problem with this trip is that Trump seemed to sacrifice the core ideals long embedded in the US national interest, most notably the issues of democracy, liberalism, and human rights. Trump touched very little on human rights in his visits with Xi and Duterte, and in Vietnam, Trump ignored the political dissidents. 

Another glaring problem was Trump was played by his hosts, especially China. So as to woo The Donald, China reportedly told Trump that he was given a "state-plus" visit, replete with a lavish dinner, state ceremonies, and screaming kids lined up along the streets to cheer on Trump's movements around China. In response, Trump was butter in Beijing's hands. All of the economic criticisms he's lobbed at China over the years--as a civilian, as a political candidate, and as president--on issues like currency valuation, US-China trade deals, and the like fell by the wayside. Instead, Trump bizarrely blamed past US administrations for China getting the upper hand in the relationship and congratulated Beijing for being wily and clever. It's one thing to pursue good relations with Beijing, it's quite another to act obsequiously toward China. At this point, it's certainly plausible that China now believes it can roll over and sweet talk Trump, even on issues of American national interest. 

At the same time, however, it is possible that Trump's personal approach to foreign policy might yield some benefits. For instance, de-emphasizing tensions with China, rather adopting a confrontational approach to Beijing, in both public and private settings, can be good thing. It's establishes some stability in Sino-US ties, which can reverberates throughout the broader Asia. And just as importantly, having good ties with China is lays the foundation for US and China to jointly work on some of the world's toughest issues, like North Korea, global economic growth, China's expansionism in the South China Sea, and so on. 

Another interesting part of Trump's trip is that he revived the so-called quad, a four-country dialogue involving the US, Japan, India, and Australia. The quad, along with the use of the term "Indo-Pacific," rather than Asia, signals an effort by Team Trump to include India in its thinking and policymaking on Asia. Which is a good and important development. India is the world's largest democracy, a latent economic powerhouse under Prime Minister Modi, and potential aspirant for regional hegemony down the line. In terms of US national interests, it's far better to have India fully integrated into the existing regional order, working and playing well with Washington's allies, and firmly on America's side. 

Lastly, it seems like quite a bit of Asia is starting to move on from the US, already preparing for a post-America Asia, and Team Trump either doesn't see it or isn't particularly bothered by it. The 11 remaining members of the TPP have already reached consensus on several major core issues that could well pave the way for a revised pact (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) minus the US now that Trump withdrew America from the TPP back in January. Furthermore, it's important to note that observers of the recent major gatherings in Asia have commented on the difference in how Xi and Trump have been received by audiences: Xi has been cheered, Trump not so much. Trump's America First platform, with its emphasis on bilateral trade deals and protectionism, doesn't resonate in Asia. These things are viewed as relics of the past, elements of a retrograde economic policy. Asia is becoming increasingly open and integrated economically, and this is the direction Asian nations, on balance, want to go. Trump is treading down a different path, one with not so many followers, and it risks transforming America First into America Alone. 

Overall, while Trump might find it worthwhile to build good rapport with leaders of the countries in East and Southeast Asia, this might not help him or the US very much absent a coherent US foreign policy strategy that takes into account the long-term interests of the US, rather than the en vogue knee-jerk populist policies that could well make China into a de-facto leader across Asia.

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