Last November President Trump embarked on a nearly two-week-long trip to Asia, the longest of his presidency, which saw him visit five different countries and address a number of issues critical to the future of the Asia-Pacific region and the United States’ place in it. Before the trip, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster outlined three major objectives for Trump during his time in Asia: one, rallying Asian nations to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions; two, promoting democratic ideals of freedom and openness in the region; and three, advancing trade in the best economic interest of the United States.
Japan: Strengthening the alliance but disagreeing on trade
Trump began his Asia trip in Japan, which, given his newfound closeness with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the overall strength of US-Japan relations, was a wise choice. Abe’s main concern regarding the United States has always and continues to be maintaining the US-Japan security alliance, one of the strongest bilateral relationships in the world and a cornerstone of both countries’ presences in the Asia-Pacific. The greatest point of contention for the security alliance has been the increasing unpredictability of the North Korean threat, which Abe wishes to confront with less pacifism and more militarism. He has received Trump’s backing on that issue; while speaking at Yokota Air Base, Trump indirectly addressed Kim Jong-un, stating that “no dictator” should ever ”underestimate American resolve” in the Asia-Pacific, which is inevitably tied to the continued robustness of the security alliance.
With regards to trade, however, the two leaders have not seen eye to eye. Abe was a supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, while Trump famously pulled the United States out of the TPP after railing against it throughout his presidential candidacy. The duo reportedly discussed terms of negotiation for US-Japan trade agreements, but not much progress appears to have been made. Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said that Japan would not acquiesce to Trump’s desire for a strictly bilateral free trade agreement to resolve the United States’ trade imbalance with Japan. Instead, Japan has been exploring ways to retain the framework of the TPP with other nations: a few days later in Vietnam, Japan agreed to the TPP-11 deal, which is essentially a US-less TPP: it promotes expansive and multilateral free-trade in the Asia-Pacific but with no United States involvement under Trump.
Given Japan’s need for continued reliance on the influence and power of the United States and Abe’s willingness to trust that the Trump administration will provide that stability, Abe and Trump’s disagreements on trade are unlikely to disrupt their personal relationship or the US-Japan Security Alliance. The two countries are united on the North Korean issue, but Trump certainly left Japan without accomplishing his “America First” economic agenda to the extent that he would have liked. Abe seems to have emerged from Trump’s visit in a position of strength by enhancing their mutual opposition to North Korea but mostly holding his ground on bilateral free trade with the United States. But Trump and Abe are still looking to “make (the) alliance even greater.”
Verdict: Mostly successful
South Korea: Overcoming personal differences with Moon
Trump’s relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been tested more than his relationship with Abe. Moon generally desires diplomatic approaches to North Korea, while Trump has taken a more bombastic attitude. Whereas Moon spoke of the need to apply pressure on North Korea through sanctions, Trump spoke at length about the United States’ increased military presence surrounding the Korean Peninsula. That being said, Trump’s brief show of face in South Korea and his amicable talks with Moon at least indicated—to North Korea especially—that the two leaders’ differences will not dramatically disrupt South Korea’s alliance with the United States and their common pursuit of a more politically stable Korean Peninsula. Trump’s public assurances that he will collaborate with Moon, though not as prevalent as with Abe in Japan, should also help improve his image among skeptical South Koreans.
Trade was also a hot topic between Trump and Moon. As with other nations like Japan, Trump has been harshly critical of the US free trade agreement with South Korea, KORUS, as a “job killer” and has threatened to withdraw from the deal. In addition to securing Moon’s commitment to restructure KORUS, Trump and Moon announced a planned purchase of US military equipment by South Korea to reduce the US trade deficit. Shortly after Trump departed from South Korea, the Korean government began the traditional bureaucratic procedure for amending KORUS, seemingly making good on Trump’s economic requests. This is good news for the Trump administration: although Trump wants KORUS amended, pulling out of the deal entirely would drive South Korea away from US business and political relations and towards closer economic cooperation with China.
Moon and Trump do not have the rapport that Trump and Abe do, and that did not change during Trump’s visit. But they made good progress by demonstrating a unified stance against North Korea, which can be attributed to Trump toning his rhetoric down while there. Trump also seems to have had more success on trade with South Korea than Japan after Moon committed to revising KORUS and to buying large quantities of US military equipment (South Korea, notably, is not part of the TPP-11 agreement). His visit to South Korea was the shortest of his five stops but proved productive.
China: Outplayed and out-flattered by Xi Jinping
Trump arrived in China having already disparaged the rising Asian superpower for its trade policies towards the United States and its failure to put pressure on North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping, aware of Trump’s past stances towards his government, opted to stroke his substantial ego by giving him a “state visit-plus” welcome, and to make a show of appeasing him without losing ground on foreign policy issues. Trump fell right into Xi’s trap: he responded to China’s overt hospitality by praising the trade policies he once decried and blamed past US mistakes for the US trade deficit. The $250 billion deal Trump did negotiate with Xi is potentially deceptively impressive. On top of that, Trump should be realizing after his China visit that Xi’s goodwill is not the instant panacea for the North Korea problem that Trump might have hoped it could be.
Even more disappointing—though not entirely unexpected—was Trump’s inability to push back on Xi’s authoritarianism, a necessity for US leadership when visiting a country with an undemocratic government like that of China’s. When former President Obama visited China, he openly called on Xi’s government to actively adhere to human rights standards and would even speak directly to Xi about the issue. On the other hand, Trump has previously praised Xi for his consolidation of political power; that trend continued implicitly in Trump’s visit when he declined to take questions with Xi from the press at Chinese insistence, diverging from recent US precedent in requiring such political dialogue during joint appearances between the two nations. No mention of human rights was made by Trump either, which, considering China’s abysmal human rights record, was another break from traditional methods of highlighting the moral differences between China and the United States.
The president did secure the release of three UCLA basketball players who were accused of shoplifting in China, for which he should be credited. However, if Xi interpreted Trump’s request as a personal favor to resolve an international incident (which is what it seems to have been), then Trump may have only further played into China’s hands by giving Xi diplomatic leverage in the future—and that could end up being costly for Trump despite the brief positive attention it garnered him in the United States. In addition, it is discouraging that Trump opted to secure the release of three Americans as a positive publicity opportunity as opposed to advocating for human rights, which is less glamorous but nonetheless critical to the United States’ international standing.
All in all, Trump’s visit to China was one of the most disappointing stops on his Asia trip. Trump did not appear to gain any international ground with China concerning North Korea and his attempts to renegotiate US trade with China and reduce the deficit seem critically flawed at best. To make matters worse, Trump was unable and likely unwilling to insist on pressuring Xi’s regime by allowing free press during his stay or by addressing human rights issues in China and beyond. Xi flattered Trump from the moment he disembarked and disarmed any expected US resistance to his own agenda. Xi manipulated the so-called great deal-maker.
Vietnam: “America First” (to be left behind)
In Vietnam, Trump attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, with about twenty other nations represented. In his speech, Trump described a vision for the Indo-Pacific region that is in line with his “America First” mantra: he declared that the US would only enter “bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation that wants to be our partner and will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade.” The use of the term “Indo-Pacific” rather than “Asia-Pacific” seems to signal an attempt to dilute China’s influence by placing it in the same region as another rising power, India (although India was not even present at APEC), that can serve as a collective buffer to Beijing’s power. Even so, Trump’s previous showering of praise on Xi just days before APEC leaves his administration’s efforts to shift focus away from China somewhat ambiguous and non-credible to other concerned countries.
What is even more troubling for Trump is the degree to which his hardline economic nationalism was rebuked by Asian leaders at APEC. The TPP-11 was agreed to in principle by eleven Pacific Rim nations during the summit in Vietnam. These leaders more or less ignored Trump’s call for bilateral trade agreements with the US to pursue the multilateral TPP vision originally supported by President Obama. They sent a clear message: Asia-Pacific nations are willing to forge forward with multifaceted economic partnerships without US leadership and in spite of US pressure to do otherwise. The TPP-11 decision is a significant rejection of changing US rhetoric and policy in the Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific, depending on whom you ask) and a definite setback for “America First.”
Trump’s indirect criticism of China at APEC was well-intentioned—China’s goals do not align with those of the US and its allies—but doing so right after being outfoxed by Xi’s flattery borders on disingenuousness on Trump’s part. On top of that, his apparent ultimatum on trade agreements fell on deaf ears, as the TPP-11 agreement demonstrates. Asia-Pacific nations would rather partake in multilateral trading without the powerful United States than bilateral trading with the United States. Trump’s vision of “America First” and of an ideal Indo-Pacific region are thus not on strong footing after APEC in Vietnam. “America First” is causing the United States to be left behind by the progressing economic affairs in the Asia-Pacific.
Verdict: Mostly failure
Philippines: Human not-so-rights to befriend Duterte
The Philippines and the United States are in a strange spot as of late. The Philippines is a critical ally to US interests in the Asia-Pacific and the anti-North Korea coalition Trump wants to build, but the rise of the country’s strongman president Rodrigo Duterte has strained relations, especially during the Obama administration. Trump’s stop in the Philippines did much to ameliorate those tensions due to his own authoritarian tendencies and his predilection for leaders like Duterte. In Manila, Trump commented on his “great relationship” with Duterte, which is noteworthy in that it indicates that Trump highly values strong personal relationships with figures in the Asia-Pacific and will go to great lengths to build those ties. Those relationships should prove valuable against North Korea and in Trump’s continued pursuit of bilateral trade objectives.
But relationship-building with Duterte also comes with a significant degradation of the US’s moral advocacy due to Duterte’s well-known and atrocious violations of human rights. His war on drugs in the Philippines has resulted in the extrajudicial deaths of thousands of his own citizens under his leadership. (For context, Duterte has admitted to personally committing murder as a teenager too.) By intentionally fostering closer ties with Duterte, Trump has all but nullified human rights as a US foreign policy priority and instead elevated both the US’s geopolitical need for the Philippines and the importance he places on his personal rapport with other national leaders. While there is some semblance of a geopolitical argument to be made in favor of courting Duterte, Trump’s decision to do so is stained by his admiration for authoritarianism and his silence on Duterte’s transgressions against humanity.
Of course, it is common knowledge that human rights are not a top priority for the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Trump seems to believe that the United States does not need to emphasize human rights to maintain its alliances with strategic and military partners in the Asia-Pacific. That may be true for the Philippines specifically, but it is certainly not the case for other nations that rely on the US’s moral standing as much as its economic or military prowess. The United States needs to maintain its credibility on human rights. Trump’s willingness to base US foreign policy initiatives on his shared interests with sovereign nations and disregard transcendent moral values to do so will erode the United States’ cachet—which constitutes a foreign policy failure over the long haul.
Trump’s Philippines visit is probably the most difficult to assess given the tension between the United States’ desire to retain the Philippines as a regional ally and the extent to which Duterte has strayed from the United States’ previously stated foreign policy values and international moral standards. But those values and standards have all but disappeared under Trump; his buddying up with Duterte has contributed to that. Continued amicable relations with the Philippines are likely not worth the corresponding damage inflicted to the US’s international reputation in the long-term, but Trump has at minimum postponed that disaster by keeping the Philippines on the US’s side for the moment—though that in itself is a blight on America’s regional and worldwide image.
Verdict: Mostly failure
So, was Trump’s visit to Asia a success?
President Trump returned from his trip to the Asia-Pacific and immediately declared his time abroad to be a “tremendous success” because he and his administration had put America “back” into a position of global leadership. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter leans more towards the opposite: that Trump’s trip to Asia negatively impacted US foreign policy goals in the Asia-Pacific and the wellbeing of the United States. Trump’s time abroad started out on some high points but quickly went sideways and downhill when the President was forced to grapple with increasingly complex international dynamics—and exposed himself as being largely unable to do so competently.
Trump began his trip on a good note when visiting Japan and South Korea, but that was to be expected. Even Trump, as unpredictable, pompous, and ignorant as he can be, should have had successful visits to two of the United States’ strongest allies in the world—and he did. But as soon as he encountered foreign adversaries to the United States and countries with interests elsewhere, he failed to meet the challenge. That much could be deduced when he was out-maneuvered by Xi, generally unheeded in Vietnam and forced to choose between human rights and Duterte’s Philippines. The only area that Trump had broad success in was in aligning many Asian nations to oppose North Korea.
But in most all other regards Trump’s Asia trip was a foreign policy flop of significant proportions: he could not solidify his widely proclaimed fair trade ideals and he sacrificed whatever international integrity on morality and humanitarian rights that the United States still had. Most troublesome of all, the political figureheads in the Asia-Pacific—and, indeed, the whole world—had their suspicions of Trump’s incompetence as a global actor on behalf of the United States confirmed. The Trump administration will find it increasingly difficult to set its foreign policy initiatives in the Asia-Pacific in motion as a consequence of Trump’s lackluster appearances in the region.