Trump’s Asia Trip: US political, economic isolation in region

The US President Donald Trump paid a five-nation tour to Asia as first diplomatic trip to the continent which took him to Japan, South Korea, China, and an APEC meeting in Vietnam, before heading to the Philippines for an ASEAN meeting and the East Asia Summit.

For all of President Trump’s efforts to build personal relations with leaders and to reassure allies during his first Asia trip, the most significant thing did not happen No discussions took place to faster diplomatic relations with the countries visited! From Tokyo to Seoul to Beijing, the American president feted with maximum ceremonial honors a phenomenon that the Chinese term as a “state visit-plus,” the Chinese called it.

Asian leaders listened politely to his demands and accepted what he considered as fairer trade terms to buy more American goods. Nowhere in Trump’s tour, however, did any of those leaders entered into serious negotiations or made significant concessions. In the first ten months of the Trump presidency, contradictory statements from the president and his advisers created uncertainty among Asian leaders.

The formal US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, once the emerging cornerstone of US economic strategy in Asia which left policymakers and business leaders across the Pacific concerned about the future of trade. The key Asian positions at the State Department and the Defense Department remained unfilled, which added to the mixed messages coming out of Washington.

Trump’s trip was important because it was meant to shed further light on the direction of US engagement in Asia. Fears linger in Asia that Trump’s “America first” vision may result in US disengagement from the region.  Other than TPP, the fears of US disengagement have not yet borne out.

Trump has not deviated greatly from the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” which was in part intended to reassure allies about the continued US presence in the region. A White House news release announced trip to demonstrate continued commitment to the alliances and partnerships of the United States in the region.

Trump Asia trip was significant to strengthen his rapport with both Xi and Abe, and also look to deepen ties with other Asian allies.

With Moon, Xi, Abe and other leaders at the ASEAN meeting, Trump talked with allies and partners to “strengthen the international resolve to confront the North Korean threat” and move toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Trump acknowledged Chinese support in tightening sanctions on North Korea but believes Beijing must do more to persuade North Korea to take steps toward denuclearization. Trump had an opportunity to make this appeal directly to Xi.

Trump has been incessant in his criticism of the US trade imbalances and will no doubt hammer that message hard at the APEC summit in Vietnam. With Japan, Trump seeks a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), a proposal raised in his first meeting with Abe at Mar-a-Lago in February.

The White House outlined three goals ahead of Trump’s visit: Strengthening international resolve to denuclearize the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and advancing American prosperity through fair and reciprocal trade.

In Japan Trump was expected to push for a US-Japan free trade agreement (FTA) while Tokyo was pushing ahead with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) despite US withdrawal. Therefore Trump was set to urge Japan to open markets to more made-in-America goods,

In South Korea, the US president was expected to argue for increased pressure on the DPRK in an address to the National Assembly while South Korean President Moon Jae-in had ruled out unilateral US action in the DPRK and tried to take the lead in diplomacy with Pyongyang.

Moon wanted Seoul to regain wartime operational control of troops from the US; Trump has attacked the US-South Korea FTA as a “horrible deal” and amendments are set to be made to keep it alive.

In China, Trump was expected to convince Beijing on making joint efforts to curtail the DPRK and possible trade deals likely to lead headlines; China has committed to opening up its market to more foreign companies, but Trump was also expected to call for more balance in the trade relationship; a series of commercial deals could also be agreed.

In Da Nang and Hano, Trump was expected to slate to set out a US vision towards Asia-Pacific in a speech to the APEC CEO meeting at a time when Vietnam was disappointed by US withdrawal from TPP but US-Vietnam trade relations had developed rapidly, further expansion was expected; security cooperation is also likely to be discussed.

In Manila and Angeles, Trump was expected to meet ASEAN leaders including President Rodrigo Duterte, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Manila and to discuss ways on a unified response to the Korean Peninsula tensions with them.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were expected to celebrate a number of new business agreements, but Xi could also announce progress in policy areas ranging from investment to drug approvals while Trump talked about making arms sales to South Korea and Japan.

Keeping the outlined objectives in view, President Donald Trump touted new business deals through his two weeks’ long visit to Asia but his trip is highlighting a broader failure on the world stage: None of the countries he’s visiting wants to negotiate a two-way trade deal with the United States.

But by pulling out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership on his third day in office, Trump walked away from free trade deals with Japan, the world’s third largest economy, and from Vietnam, one of the fastest growing countries in the Asia-Pacific. And even though Trump said he wanted to hold bilateral free-trade talks with the TPP nations, he hasn’t been able to persuade a single country to start.

Certainly Donald Trump enjoyed many warm words of welcome from those he visited during his trip and he repaid the compliments by the bucket load. Yet it remains unclear whether Trump actually achieved a great deal during his 11 days away.

At the outset, he was said to have three objectives, according to General HR McMaster, the US National Security Adviser. First was the promotion of democratic freedom and openness; second was to press for ‘fair’ trade to boost America’s prosperity; third was to deal with North Korea.

In relation to the first aim, it might have been thought that the President would raise concerns over human rights abuses by China, or the large-scale killing of drug pushers in the Philippines, or the lack of media freedom in Vietnam. When it came to it, though, he evidently felt it was a little impertinent to be so rude. He is, after all, always wary of causing offence.

As for the second, he has regularly railed against Chinese trade policies, which he argues amount to an assault on America’s economy. Yet when he was actually in Beijing, he simply told President Xi what a “special man” he was (Xi, not Trump, though he probably feels the same about himself).

 When it came to North Korea, Trump’s attempts to rally a co-ordinated regional response were undermined by his inability to resist a childish Twitter spat with Kim Jong-un.

Of course, Trump can point to a few macho statements – mostly made about China when he wasn’t in the country – which might convince his fans at home that he’s still fighting the good fight on behalf of US workers. But the evidence that he has come anywhere near achieving something concrete in the last week and a half is slim to say the least.

What’s more, he also gave a good impression of furthering his cosy relationship with Vladimir Putin, infuriating America’s intelligence community by explaining that he’d – yet again – asked the Russian President whether he had interfered in the US election and had been reassured by his answer in the negative. Not only that, complained Trump, but poor old Vlad felt insulted by the constant impugning of his reputation by suggestions to the contrary.

As ever with Trump, it is hard to know whether his apparent missteps are intentional – an extension simply of his dismissal of the US establishment and the way things have been done by his predecessors – or whether he is acting on the hoof, pulling punches when flattered and throwing them when riled.

Increasingly however it feels as if Trump – the great entertainer-President – is being played. The Chinese roll out the red carpet and thus avoid both tricky questions of the sort usually asked by Western leaders and any sort of confrontation over trade. Putin, meanwhile, appeals to Trump’s own inflated notion of ego by complaining that claims of Russian meddling in America’s democratic process amount to a personal slight.

Trump responds by defending his fellow strongman leader and attacking the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.  In the South Korean leg of his tour, Trump gloried in being introduced to the National Assembly as the “leader of the world”. But the truth is almost the diametric opposite: Trump is being led, quite often in ways that appear at odds with American national interests, which is a remarkable state of affairs.

The counter-argument deployed by the President is that America’s foreign policy in many arenas has been a failure over many years and his approach will, at some stage, pay dividends. Yet, such an argument pre-supposes that different policies in the past – towards Chinese trade for instance, or Russian diplomacy, or the Middle East – would have had alternative outcomes. It also relies on Trump’s bluster turning into something demonstrable. That is a dangerous game indeed.

But Perhaps that is the central problem – that to Trump, the Presidency is simply a game, in which beating losers and vying for personal glory are the key aspects. Worse still, while Trump thinks it’s a game for single players, Russia, China and others understand that it’s all about teams. And in the last few days they have benefitted from a series of Trump own goals.  Much more of this and America will find that it is very far from being first in the modern world order.

Moreover, the lack of progress in one-on-one trade deals with Asian countries not only shows the limitations of Trump’s “America First” trade policy, but potentially puts the US in a weaker position as other countries band together to forge trade deals without the United States.

Trump got a pledge from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the two countries would work together to expand trade, without any reference to formally launching bilateral talks. In contrast, Japan is already pursuing a free trade agreement with the European Union and is leading efforts among the 11 remaining TPP members to put that deal in place without the U.S., at least for now.

One reason Japan is wary of starting bilateral trade talks with United States is that it made a politically difficult decision to open its agricultural market to more US farm exports in the TPP deal. Now Trump promises to pocket those TPP concessions and demand more, while retracting US offers. All these countries are watching the NAFTA negotiations very closely and wondering how they will proceed and what the outcome will mean for them so everyone would prefer to wait. It’s one thing to put tough proposals on the table. It’s another to see what the outcome will be.

Asian countries have already noticed how Trump has treated South Korea because he decided to force a renegotiation of the five-year-old US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement by threatening to withdraw from the pact. Therefore Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to accelerate efforts to tweak the deal as Seoul agreed to buy “billions of dollars worth of [U.S. military] equipment” to bring trade with the United States into balance.

There could be some awkward encounters at Trump’s second-to-last stop, in Da Nang, Vietnam, which is the setting for this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting. All 11 remaining members of TPP are also members of APEC, and they could announce plans to move ahead with the pact while Trump watches from the sidelines.

It’s no secret that Trump’s decision to bolt the TPP left many US allies in Asia wondering whether he was turning his back on the entire region, and there is quite a bit of concern as to whether that has happened or not.

When it comes to China, Trump is unlikely to get anything close to what he most wants: an agreement to make the systemic changes that would be needed to address the US.-China bilateral trade deficit, which totaled $347 billion in China’s favor last year and could set a new record of about $370 billion in Trump’s first year in office.

Trump himself has even downplayed the prospect of him getting in Xi’s face over trade on this trip, because the need to have China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea is a more pressing concern. Trump’s actions back home could also be making it tough to ink an important deal with China. Under his direction, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is investigating whether the U.S. should impose unilateral sanctions because of Chinese policies and practices that either fail to protect the intellectual property rights of American companies or that force US companies to hand over valuable technology if they want to do business in China.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department announced recently that it would continue to treat China as “non-market economy” in trade cases. Chinese officials have indicated they will challenge  that decision at the WTO.Instead of offering concessions, both the United States’ historical allies, Japan and South Korea, as well as China, its most serious Pacific rival, signaled that they had taken Trump at his word: His “America First” policy means the United States will become less and less a player in the fastest-growing and most dynamic region in the world.

That reality was underscored when trade ministers from the so-called TPP-11, the signatories to the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement minus the US, said at a meeting in Vietnam that they had agreed on how to revise the agreement to proceed without Washington.

The Obama administration’s effort to push the agreement through Congress failed last year, and Trump officially withdrew US agreement to the pact shortly after he took office therefore Asian nations are enthusiastically cutting trade deals with each other and with European countries.

With Washington abandoning the sweeping Asia-Pacific trade deal and more generally pulling back from the multilateral economic order that it established and nurtured for decades, China is pressing to become the dominant player in the region.

Its small neighbors, among them Malaysia and Singapore, are similarly proceeding to act alone, without the United States, their long-time big brother, at their side. Japan has moved from its traditionally passive role and has exerted greater leadership on trade. It was Tokyo, for example, that took the lead in pushing forward on the TPP without the United States.

At Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Trump kept hearing a consistent theme from other APEC economies that said, essentially, now that the US left Asia.

An economically sidelined US in Asia would almost certainly weaken American companies and hurt exports, particularly of farm goods, as well as the prospects for returns on the massive investments US firms have made throughout the region over the last 35 years, trade experts.

The US firms may face higher duties and other more onerous barriers than they would have if trade agreements that included America were in place. To be sure, many in Asia as well as America still see the US as an economic superpower in the region, and they may have found some encouragement in the way Trump has toned down his trade rhetoric during his trip thus far.

The US Chamber of Commerce, which has clashed with the Trump administration on the North American Free Trade Agreement. The chamber officials also worry that Trump has yet to articulate a strategy for commercial engagement in the region. All that he has espoused is a consistent line that the US wants fair and reciprocal trade to reduce America’s large trade deficits with Asian countries and that he prefers negotiating bilateral deals rather than multilateral ones.

 There were a lot of symbolic gestures in China as well. President Xi welcomed Trump by shutting down the Forbidden City to give Trump a private tour and, for the first time for any American president, an official dinner inside the storied palace. As they’ve done in past presidential visits, the Chinese also announced billions of dollars in deals with American companies, including General Electric and Smithfield Foods, a Chinese-owned company based in Virginia.

But some of those deals were already in the pipeline, and Xi did not offer concessions on substantive issues on Trump’s trade agenda, such as Chinese steel production or removal of barriers to US imports to China. Tillerson, in his comments to reporters, said the “Chinese acknowledge much more has to be done. “

Xi, too, will be giving a speech in Vietnam, and could offer a stark competing vision in which the Chinese, not the Americans, will be portrayed as championing economic integration and engagement with the world, something considered unthinkable not long ago.

I don’t think the Chinese have to do very much. They’re gaining strategic importance and geopolitical influence in the region by virtue of the fact that the United States is perceived, and, to some extent, is withdrawing from the region.

Back in the 1980s, he said, the Reagan White House pressed the Japanese to open up markets in certain sectors, and subsequent administrations have followed a similar tack in China and elsewhere in Asia.

President Trump managed to make it halfway through his 12-day Asia trip without generating any above-the-fold news coverage. To get a clearer fix on what’s actually happened during this important trip, here is a break down the developments.

China dubbed Trump’s trip a “state visit plus,” a term that hasn’t been used for any foreign leader since the Communist Party took power in 1949. That means plenty of pomp and circumstance including Xi’s personal tour of the Forbidden City, cheering schoolchildren, and a banquet in his honor and supposedly more personal interaction between the foreign leaders. President Trump’s inability to bring up specific trade or security concerns while in Beijing, and his extravagant praise for China’s rulers, have sent the rest of the region into a mini-frenzy.

Insiders speculated whether Trump would go along with the customs of APEC leaders donning colorful traditional shirts from the host country for a “family photo.” Trump, very much to his credit, complied and the Vietnamese served him well with a beautifully tailored silk shirt in a flattering color.

The “America First” rhetoric awkwardly came at a regional economic summit including all the leaders who hoped to be bound in economic cooperation with the United States through the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal Trump canceled. Trump said the United States would no longer do deals with groups of countries but would negotiate bilateral trade deals with anyone. . In reality the region rejected this approach as fast as it could.

As Trump was arriving, most of the rest of the TPP countries went ahead and finalized an agreement without the US. The Japanese government waited until Trump had left to reiterate its interest in moving ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, minus the US., rather than entering into a bilateral trade deal, as Trump prefers.

Chinese officials and citizens nodded along happily when Trump said of the trade imbalance between China and the US; I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?

 Meanwhile, Americans scratched their heads about what had happened to Trump’s frequent claims that he would be tough on China, on everything from currency manipulation to intellectual property to rule of law and workers’ rights.

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About Erum Akbar 17 Articles
The author is Executive Editor of Mélange int’l Magazine and Secretary Information at Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR).