Analysis: Trump heads home with 'America First' ringing in Asian ears

By Reuters/John Chalmers and Steve Holland   November 14, 2017 | 06:32 pm PT
Analysis: Trump heads home with 'America First' ringing in Asian ears
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on November 12, 2017. Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. Photo by AFP/Kham/Pool
Trump's bilateral approach to trade gets muted reception.

As Air Force One took off from Manila on Tuesday at the end of the longest trip to Asia by an American president in more than quarter of a century, at least two of the region's leaders had good reason to feel satisfied.

At a summit in the Philippines, Donald Trump forged a "great relationship" with President Rodrigo Duterte, who only a year ago had cursed "son of a bitch" Barack Obama for decrying his administration's bloody war on drug pushers and addicts.

And Trump flashed a thumbs-up as he shook hands with Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, who praised the U.S. president as a kindred spirit for telling countries to put their own interests first.

"You are a great man to me," Hun Sen said, addressing Trump at a meeting with other Southeast Asian leaders, and then referenced Trump's 'America First' policy.

"I would like to inform you that if you follow your new policy in respect of the independence and sovereignty of other countries, the United States will have a lot of friends and you will be much respected and loved."

For other leaders across Asia, however, Trump's go-it-alone instincts must have represented a puzzling departure from his predecessors, who were - to varying degrees - standard bearers of multilateralism, democracy and human rights.

During a tour that took him to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam and the Philippines capital, Trump called for joint efforts to tighten the screws on North Korea and its development of nuclear weapons in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

But at an Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam, he declared that redressing the uneven balance of trade between Asia and the United States was at the center of his “America First” policy, which he says will protect U.S. workers.

Trump's vision has up-ended a consensus favoring multinational trade pacts whose regional champion is now China. On the sidelines of the Vietnam meeting, 11 countries kept alive a Trans Pacific trade deal that Trump walked away from in January in the name of protecting American jobs.

One cabinet member from a major ASEAN country told Reuters there was little enthusiasm in the region for Trump's bilateral approach to deals.

"As Singapore Prime Minister Lee pointed out, the reason bilateral trade deals are so attractive for the USA, is precisely why no one will want to enter into one with the USA: because the USA could bully anyone on a bilateral basis," said the Cabinet member who did not want to be named.

"Why would anyone sign up for that?"

The art of the deals

Trump told reporters before leaving that he had sealed deals of "at least $300 billion, possibly triple that figure".

U.S. businesses signed around $250 billion dollars worth of deals during Trump's Beijing visit, but many of those were nonbinding. Missing was any agreement on market access or reduction in technology-sharing agreements that American businesses have long complained about.

For Trump, dogged at home by low public approval ratings and investigations into Russian links to his election campaign, the deals will be an important prize to flaunt on his return.

"The multi-billion-dollar deals he struck in Beijing may not help the U.S. trade deficit," said a former Japanese diplomat in Tokyo, who declined to be named. "But optically ... he can tell people that because he went to China with business leaders, he was able to come back with a gift."

Although there were few weighty deliverables from Trump's tour, for Asian nations looking nervously at China's increasing assertiveness, it may be welcomed as a sign that his administration is still committed to the region.

"What regional countries wanted was for him to simply show up – to underscore that America remained at least notionally committed to Asia," said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic & International Studies in Malaysia.

A senior official in South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration said Seoul had been worried he "would come to South Korea and engage in unexpected behavior and language, but it turned out Trump was quite considerate.”

“South Korea was able to rest assured regarding its partnership with the United States,” the official said.

He also got good reviews at the start of his Asia tour in Japan, which has been currying favor with Trump since right after his election when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jetted off to Trump Tower with an expensive golf club as a present.

"The most important deliverable is that we can send an almost identical message to the world that we share an identical strategy," a Japanese government official said.

Lavish reception

For Asian leaders, Trump's off-the-cuff style, freewheeling tweets, and rhetorical hyperbole, must have been daunting. But one thing they seemed to learn was that he responds well to a lavish reception.

"They say in the history of people coming to China there has been nothing like that, and I believe it," Trump told reporters after his visit to Beijing, where President Xi Jinping extended him the honor of a personal tour of the Forbidden City.

One measure of the Asian trip's success, he said, was the "red carpet, like I think probably nobody has ever received."

Diplomats say the bonhomie in Beijing probably stemmed in large part from Washington's expectations Xi will lean more heavily on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump’s pronouncements on North Korea during the trip swung from embracing diplomacy to warnings of military intervention. “Do not underestimate us. And do not try us,” he said in a speech to South Korea's National Assembly.

Days later, after Pyongyang dismissed the speech as “reckless remarks by an old lunatic,” Trump tweeted: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’". And then he tacked back toward diplomacy. “Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!”

David Pressman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama, said Trump arrived in Asia without a North Korea strategy and left without one.

"Short and fat is not a nuclear strategy," he said, adding that Washington's approach to North Korea was fed by "whim, ego, and theatrical calculations of a fickle and uninformed president."

go to top