Trump’s Asian Trip Leaves Allies Wondering And Doubting
President Trump returns home from an Asian trip that wasn't exactly impressive.
President Trump is back home after a trip to Asia that lasted nearly two weeks. During that time, he visited key American allies such as Japan and South Korea, made a stop-over in China where he met with President Xi Jinping and other top officials where issues such as trade and North Korea were discussed, made stops in Vietnam and The Phillipenes, and attended both the summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asian-Pacific Economic Summit (APEC) summits. It was Trump’s longest and most intense international trip to date, and in many ways probably his most important so far, but as the visit draws to a close The New York Times reports that it left Asian allies and others asking questions about exactly what to expect from the United States over the next four years:
MANILA — President Trump vowed this week to reclaim America’s role as a Pacific power. But as he wrapped up a marathon tour of Asia on Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s mixed messages left allies unsure of America’s staying power and fed a growing sense that China, not the United States, drives the agenda in the region.
Whether recruiting partners to confront North Korea even as he castigated them for trade abuses, or embracing China at the same time that he lined up a like-minded coalition to contain it, Mr. Trump was often a bewildering figure to countries that had already viewed the new president with anxiety.
“He’s seen as more personable than the figure on Twitter, but these internal contradictions have not been worked out,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in South Korea. “Contrast that with the Chinese, who have this incredible consistency of message and are rising inexorably.”
In Manila, the final stop on his punishing 12-day tour of the region, Mr. Trump declared his visit a success.
“This has been a very fruitful trip for us and, also, in all fairness, for a lot of other nations,” Mr. Trump said here on Monday, at a meeting with the leaders of Japan and Australia, during which he lectured them on the need for “fair and reciprocal” trade with the United States.
“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” the president added.
By some measures, he was right. Mr. Trump made no major gaffes. The closest he came was calling the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “short and fat” in a tweet. He also faced criticism for failing to challenge the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who is accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings, on human rights.
But Mr. Trump’s energy did not flag and he was accorded a lavish reception at every stop, especially Beijing, where President Xi Jinping threw open the doors of the Forbidden City.
“Like any Trump endeavor, there were the inevitable distractions with tweets about the physical appearance of leaders and clear signals that he prefers the company of tyrants like Putin and Duterte,” said Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs.
Still, Mr. Campbell said, “If this trip were a high-wire act, President Trump managed to get to the other side.”
And yet there were subtler signs of tension, which spoke to the conflicting messages Mr. Trump brought to Asia and suggested a level of disarray in the White House’s policy toward the region.
The Indo-Pacific framing is clearly the handiwork of his more experienced and internationally-minded senior national security team, while the ‘America First’ theme of demanding zero-sum concessions from all our trading partners is not,” said Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Trump’s invitation for one-on-one trade negotiations with the United States, Mr. Green said, was likely to fall on deaf ears in Asian countries, many of which went though fierce debates before signing on to the Pacific trade deal and now want to reap its benefits.
“That’s like a sheriff squaring up for a showdown with the town outlaw by announcing to the posse that he wants a gunfight with each of them at the same time,” said Mr. Green, who served as President George W. Bush’s senior adviser on Asia policy.
Mr. Trump’s mixed messages applied to China, too. In Beijing, he embraced the Chinese leader unlike any American president going back to Richard M. Nixon. He said nothing publicly about China’s human rights record. And he cast Mr. Xi as a popular leader who could solve the nuclear crisis with North Korea.
“He’s a strong person,” Mr. Trump said to reporters. “He’s a very smart person. I like him a lot; he likes me. But, you know, we represent two very different countries. But we get along very well. And that’s a good thing that we get along; that’s not a bad thing.”
White House officials said Mr. Trump’s charm offensive had paid off in extracting new commitments from China to shut down North Korean bank accounts. But officials acknowledged that China had not budged on their No. 1 request on North Korea: to cut off all shipments of oil to the North.
Nor did it announce major moves to open its markets during Mr. Trump’s visit, in part because the president did not ask for any.
Moreover, Mr. Trump soft-pedaled his call for China not to colonize the South China Sea. While he emphasized the need for free navigation and open shipping lanes during his visits to Vietnam and the Philippines, he did not single out China, which has clashed with those neighbors as it has built military installations in the disputed waterway.
One of Mr. Trump’s aides marveled at the sheer size of China’s claims in the South China Sea, noting that Air Force One flew for three hours over these contested waters on its way from Hanoi to Manila.
[T]o be fair, President Trump does not have any background in foreign or domestic policy. He walked into the Oval Office having been a branding and reality TV show genius with no political experience. It always seemed that Trump’s learning on the job — the most important job on the planet — was going to be a grand experiment of sorts. And specifically on foreign policy, no one expected miracles.
But the leader of the free world should have at least some idea of what is happening across the globe, and some policy strategy to match. Instead, what we saw during Trump’s tour of Asia was a series of incoherent rants, no vision or grand strategy for the future, and a strange bromance-style of foreign policy.
Kazainis goes on to discuss five areas that Trump’s trip is likely to have an impact on, including the extent to which Asian leaders went out of their way to flatter and impress Trump in an effort to woo favor from him, the problems that Trump’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as what we learned about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and his seemingly bizarre effort to be “friends” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. As he notes, none of these trends bodes well for the United States in either the short, medium or long term. Instead of reassuring anyone, Trump demonstrated that flattering him is a way to curry favor, that he is still reluctant to say anything critical about Vladimir Putin, that he is similarly reluctant to criticize someone like Philippine President Duarte, and that he thinks he can somehow solve the North Korean problem by pursuing a bromance with a single-minded North Korean dictator. Taken together, all of this no doubt left long-standing allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia confused, to say the least.
In this respect, of course, Trump’s first big trip to Asia has left Asian allies in much the same position that the trips he took to Europe in the early months of his Presidency have left European allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the membership of NATO wondering exactly what to expect from the United States in the future. As I noted after the most extensive of those trips, the early months of the Trump Presidency have left American allies wondering just how much they can count on the United States to live up to previously made commitments and, especially in the case of NATO, just how committed Trump is to things such as the collective security guarantee in Article V of the NATO Treaty. Most importantly, both that trip and this recently concluded Asian trip have revealed a President who, without the help of top aides such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.L. McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is essentially clueless and rudderless when it comes to foreign policy.
To those of us who have been following Trump from the beginning, none of this comes as a surprise. During the campaign, his comments and pronouncements on a wide variety of issues revealed a man who was either wildly naive when it came to foreign policy, or simply parroting things that he knew would please his most rabid supporters. Even when he would be called out regarding how wrong he was about some of these issues, he would brush the arguments aside and continue to make claims unsupported by evidence and completely out of tune with either the real state of affairs in the world or the facts. This has continued since he has become credit, such as when he recently claimed that recent successes on the ground against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were due to some change in policy that had taken place under his watch. In reality, it is clear that events such as the capture of Mosul and the capital of the self-proclaimed ISIS Caliphate came about due to strategies put in place during the final years of President Obama’s time in office which were continued over the course of Trump’s time in office.
All of this is concerning, of course, because foreign policy is the one area where a President has virtually unchecked autonomy in determining the image the United States presents to the world, the impression it gives to potential and actual adversaries such as North Korea, China, and Russia, and the signals that it sends to allies all over the world. When it comes to these matters, Congress can hold hearings and the media can ask questions and air commentary from analysts and experts critical of Administration policy, but there’s little anyone can do to deter a President from acting in this arena or from making mistakes that could end up having serious consequences for the nation either while they are President or further down the line.