Catas­tro­phe dodged: Pres­i­dent’s trip rated a suc­cess

Tour has seen the Pres­i­dent sub­ject to wel­come flat­tery


So far, so good.

Don­ald Trump stayed pretty well on script dur­ing the most chal­leng­ing part of his nine-day, five-na­tion Asia tour, and im­pressed Asian au­di­ences with his friend­li­ness and di­rect­ness in their first di­rect sight­ing of him.

But by the time the US Pres­i­dent flew from Bei­jing yes­ter­day to Da Nang, he had yet to set out a blue­print for Amer­ica’s role in the re­gion to com­pare with the suite of new con­cepts, in­clud­ing the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive and the Asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank, launched by his “friend”, China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping.

Trump’s task in reaf­firm­ing US leadership has been made more dif­fi­cult by the fail­ure of his White House to fill a num­ber of the key Asia-fo­cused jobs in the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The APEC sum­mit in Viet­nam’s Da Nang pro­vides a fur­ther chal­lenge.

Trump is no sup­porter of mul­ti­lat­eral eco­nomic ar­range­ments, the prime im­pe­tus for the fo­rum. But it of­fers him, at the same time, the big­gest pos­si­ble plat­form to af­firm that Amer­ica is not, as feared, los­ing in­ter­est in the re­gion but is here to stay, de­spite his re­jec­tion of the “Asia pivot” and of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship.

There has been no break­through so far on re­solv­ing the prime chal­lenge of Trump’s Asia tour, North Korea’s rapid nu­cle­ari­sa­tion.

In Ja­pan, Trump and Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe deep­ened their “bro­mance” with an­other round of golf, but Trump also told Abe he had to buy a mas­sive amount of Amer­i­can ar­ma­ments, and com­plained about Ja­panese car­mak­ers: “Try build­ing your cars in the US in­stead of shipping them over, is that rude to ask?” Ja­pan’s auto in­dus­try re­sponded within min­utes: 75 per cent of Ja­panese brand cars bought in Amer­ica are al­ready made in the US.

Un­der­stand­ably, Abe is re­serv­ing judg­ment on Trump’s pro­posal of a free-trade agree­ment be­tween the two. Abe has un­der­gone a bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence with Amer­ica on that front, last year de­liv­er­ing a painstak­ingly con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment to congress that it should ink the TPP on which he had ex­pended con­sid­er­able per­sonal po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal only to be spurned by Repub­li­cans and Democrats.

Trump’s best per­for­mance has been in Seoul, clos­est to North Korea, where the traps were clear­est, and where crit­ics at first com­plained South Korea had again been “passed over”, squeezed be­tween longer US vis­its to its larger neigh­bours to the east and west.

But while the visit was short, the qual­ity of the en­coun­ters was ap­plauded. Kang Choi, the vi­cepres­i­dent of the Asan In­sti­tute, one of South Korea’s lead­ing think tanks, told The Week­end Aus­tralian: “I was re­ally sur­prised that he be­haved this time.”

Trump’s tough, well-ar­tic­u­lated speech to the South Korean Na­tional Assem­bly, ap­plauded 25 times by the MPs, im­pressed Choi as much as his speech in War­saw in July. Choi noted that while ad­dress­ing Kim Jong-un’s hu­man rights abuses more than his nu­clear ad­ven­tur­ism, he did not men­tion the dic­ta­tor by name, but did praise the South Korean eco­nomic mir­a­cle: “cham­pi­oning com­mon val­ues rather than mer­can­til­ism”.

Trump held back from pre­vi­ous abu­sive at­tacks on the five-yearold free-trade agree­ment with South Korea, although he did praise the coun­try’s purchase of new weapons from the US even though this is only at the start­ing point of ne­go­ti­a­tions. Choi said this prompted the in­evitable cri- tique from the South Korean left that Trump is “try­ing to sell weapons by cre­at­ing a cri­sis”.

But Choi said that by buy­ing more so­phis­ti­cated mil­i­tary sys­tems, in­clud­ing early warn­ing de­vices and re­con­nais­sance planes, South Korea would be­come less de­pen­dent on the US and more con­fi­dent in its own ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

He be­lieved Trump had sensed the mood in South Korea and “skil­fully dodged” the neg­a­tive is­sues, at­tract­ing sub­stan­tial on­line sup­port in the most wired coun­try in the world de­spite some protests in the streets.

The Chi­nese diplo­matic min­ders clev­erly shep­herded Trump back to­wards that de­fault and, com­par­a­tively harm­less for them, mer­can­til­ism in Bei­jing.

Be­sides the at­mo­spher­ics de­signed to present the host to best ef­fect — Xi show­ing his guests the great sites of the world’s re-emer- ging im­pe­rial city — the main take­away was the an­nounce­ment of $325 bil­lion of new or­ders for Amer­i­can com­pa­nies.

But the 15 deals are mostly non­bind­ing ex­pres­sions of in­tent, and re­al­is­ing them could be kicked for­ward well into the next pres­i­den­tial term. On North Korea, Tong Zhao, fel­low at the CarnegieTs­inghua Cen­tre for Global Pol­icy, said call­ing on China to cease trade with North Korea, as Trump did in Seoul, was al­ways “likely to be a dead end”.

The two coun­tries dif­fer about ap­ply­ing “co­er­cive pres­sure or diplo­matic over­ture”, he said, with China “re­ject­ing the US view that Pyongyang bears the sole re­spon­si­bil­ity for pre­vi­ous diplo­matic fail­ures”. As an­tic­i­pated, there was no break­through in Bei­jing on a com­mon ap­proach, only on the com­mon — but al­ready re­mote — goal of de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion.

The chal­lenges are pil­ing up for Xi, too, as he seeks the global role that Trump ap­pears to es­chew. He needs to demon­strate he is man­ag­ing Kim Jong-un, not the re­verse, and that he prefers more con­tem­po­rary and equal re­la­tions with his neigh­bours than as trib­ute-states, with both APEC and the East Asia Sum­mit at An­ge­lese in The Philip­pines pro­vid­ing plat­forms to make those points.

In Asia this week, Don­ald Trump has given us the good, the glad and the mud­dling. There have been no dis­as­ters. He has stuck to the script. So far, no bizarre tweets have emerged.

Half­way through a 12-day odyssey, Trump even has a few mod­est achieve­ments in place and some dis­tinct tonal im­prove­ment. The Ja­pan leg was very good, the Korean leg pretty good, the China leg kind of OK with room for more than a few queru­lous doubts. There were cer­tainly no break­throughs on a big is­sue — not North Korea, not trade, not any­thing else. The trip rep­re­sents what Trump nor­mally ap­pears to hate — in­cre­men­tal process based on im­prove­ment with at least as much at­ten­tion to form and po­lite­ness as to sub­stance.

The trip was well-struc­tured and re­flects the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the se­nior bu­reau­crats in Wash­ing­ton. It be­gan with two days in Ja­pan. It is al­ways im­por­tant for a pres­i­dent to pay as much or more for­mal cour­tesy to Amer­ica’s ally in Tokyo as he does to its some­times ri­val and some­times friend in Bei­jing. Trump spent the same time in Ja­pan as he did in China. The visit to Ja­pan was such a suc­cess partly be­cause of the in­tense fo­cus Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe has him­self put on man­ag­ing the US.

Abe has in­vested in Trump heav­ily, and per­son­ally, since be­fore Trump be­came Pres­i­dent. He con­vinced Trump that the US-Ja­pan se­cu­rity re­la­tion­ship is in Amer­ica’s in­ter­ests and op­er­ates in a way com­pat­i­ble with Trump’s own po­lit­i­cal val­ues. He has badged up some Ja­panese in­vest­ment in the US in a way that al­lows Trump to semi-plau­si­bly claim some au­thor­ship of it.

Abe has sup­ported Trump in ev­ery nu­ance of his North Korean rhetoric, with­out of course en­gag­ing in any wild rhetoric him­self. He has show­ered Trump with praise and Trump is ex­tremely re­spon­sive to flat­tery, no mat­ter how ex­ag­ger­ated.

Abe also com­mit­ted, dur­ing Trump’s visit, to buy­ing a great deal of hi-tech US mil­i­tary hard­ware. He is help­ing Trump in Asia but also en­list­ing Trump to sup­port Ja­pan’s, and Abe’s own per­sonal, pol­icy agenda. He has got Trump to en­thu­si­as­ti­cally recom­mit to US se­cu­rity guar­an­tees to Ja­pan, above all its ex­tended nu­clear de­ter­rence shield of Ja­pan, and also to sup­port Abe’s ef­forts to beef up the Ja­panese mil­i­tary and move its con­sti­tu­tion away from its anti-mil­i­tary bent. So far, so good. Trump also did well in South Korea. The new Pres­i­dent, Moon Jae-in, un­like Abe, is not a con­ser­va­tive and wins no plau­dits in his own so­ci­ety by pre­tend­ing to be a Con­fu­cian ver­sion of Trump — that is, a ruth­less na­tion­al­ist un­con­cerned with in­ter­na­tional rules but tem­pered by East Asian po­lite­ness. But North Korea’s ag­gres­sion and reck­less­ness have driven Moon ever closer to Trump. The South Kore­ans need the US mil­i­tary al­liance, they need US mis­sile de­fence tech­nol­ogy and, even more than the Ja­panese, they need the ex­tended nu­clear de­ter­rence guar­an­tee.

So the South Kore­ans laid on the most lav­ish and grand cer­e­monies wel­com­ing Trump that they

pos­si­bly could and Trump played his part in the bar­gain by de­liv­er­ing the right kind of speech to their na­tional par­lia­ment.

It was a speech that sen­si­bly flat­tered the South Kore­ans, re­as­sured them on se­cu­rity and con­demned North Korea not only for the mil­i­tary risk it posed to its neigh­bours, and to the US, but for its shock­ing, truly grotesque, but or­tho­doxly com­mu­nist, hu­man rights abuses.

The speech con­tained the nec­es­sary threats to North Korea. But the tone was vastly less bel­li­cose than Trump’s pre­vi­ous out­bursts on the sub­ject. Es­chew­ing the “rocket man” rhetoric and the threats to de­stroy “the whole of North Korea”, Trump in­stead made ex­actly the con­ven­tional type of speech that any of his pre­de­ces­sors might have made.

His state­ment to Pyongyang dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un that “North Korea is not the par­adise your grand­fa­ther en­vis­aged; it is a hell that no per­son de­serves” was pre­cisely true and sits well in the tra­di­tion of US for­eign pol­icy as an ex­pres­sion of val­ues and con­cern for uni­ver­sal hu­man rights, a tra­di­tion Trump al­most never speaks to. The speech pleased the South Kore­ans and con­veyed use­ful mes­sages.

In Bei­jing, Trump was sub­ject to world-class flat­tery. With­out re­vis­it­ing the tropes of Trumpopho­bia, there is a very tech­ni­cal way in which Trump dis­plays a char­ac­ter­is­tic of nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der. He re­gards all praise, no mat­ter how ex­ces­sive, as no more than his due, and all such praise wins him over, at least while it’s hap­pen­ing, as se­cur­ing such praise seems al­ways to be the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­per­a­tive of any mo­ment.

The Chi­nese are the world cham­pi­ons at flat­ter­ing and se­duc­ing a vis­it­ing leader. They of­fi­cially styled Trump’s visit as a “state visit plus”.

Pause for a mo­ment to con­sider the mar­vel­lous irony. The Bri­tish govern­ment had to ef­fec­tively down­grade its in­vi­ta­tion to Trump from a state visit to a work­ing visit be­cause Trump arouses such hos­til­ity in Bri­tain. The Bri­tish politi­cians who con­nived in such down­grad­ing are short­sighted fools. Like him or not, Trump re­mains the US Pres­i­dent.

The Chi­nese govern­ment, on the other hand, serenely in­dif­fer­ent to any views of its pub­lic on any is­sue at all, was free to of­fer Trump ev­ery bit of pomp and cir­cum­stance he could pos­si­bly de­sire. He was the honoured guest, es­corted by Xi Jin­ping, at Bei­jing’s uniquely im­pos­ing For­bid­den City. There were all kinds of mil­i­tary in­spec­tions for Trump to un­der­take.

In­deed, as Xi and Trump strolled im­pe­ri­ally past the lesser mor­tals, it was im­pos­si­ble to miss the phys­i­cal re­sem­blance of these two portly sons of priv­i­lege.

In some ways you could say Trump han­dled his mes­sag­ing in China rea­son­ably well; in other ways it was quite weird. Trump lav­ished praise on Xi, “a great man … my friend … a great leader … fresh from his great po­lit­i­cal vic­tory” and so on.

In some ways Trump talked about Xi in the way he nor­mally only talks about him­self. Although that is not quite true. Oc­ca­sion­ally Trump goes over­board flat­ter­ing in­ter­locu­tors. Trump seems to have only two reg­is­ters in which he deals with any­one of sig­nif­i­cance that he runs across. He ei­ther be­stows wildly ex­ag­ger­ated flat­tery or wildly ex­ag­ger­ated in­sults. There is lit­tle in be­tween.

Those who de­fend Trump no mat­ter what claim that his wild swings in rhetoric are all part of a so­phis­ti­cated ne­go­ti­at­ing strat­egy, that he says one thing to gain ad­van­tage, then neatly re­verses him­self and pulls off a judo flip on his an­tag­o­nists. This is the way Trump sees him­self, but it is more or less non­sense. Xi has so far had to yield, and in fact has yielded, ab­so­lutely noth­ing to Trump. The only per­son Trump is out­smart­ing is him­self, and per­haps his diehard sup­port­ers.

The Chi­nese re­spect the hard­headed cabi­net Trump has ap­pointed, and they re­tain a resid­ual con­cern that Trump could one day de­cide to lash out at them, a con­cern they never had about Barack Obama, but so far all his blus­ter has in­con­ve­nienced them not at all.

If any­one voted for Trump be­liev­ing his claims that he would la­bel China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor and im­pose tar­iffs on China, they are surely dis­ap­pointed. Yet it is a good thing that Trump has re­treated from his wild cam­paign rhetoric. He con­tin­ues to talk about get­ting much bet­ter trade deals with coun­tries like China, but so far noth­ing has hap­pened.

Trump was able to pre­side over the an­nounce­ment of about $US250 bil­lion of al­leged deals be­tween Chi­nese and Amer­i­can com­pa­nies, but this is not a trade deal with China. And it does not af­fect the terms on which China trades with the US. Such deals are made be­tween com­pa­nies be­cause they are mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial. And such an­nounce­ments of­ten yield many fewer dol­lars than the head­lines sug­gest.

Yet for all that, Trump did main­tain his po­si­tion that the trade deficit be­tween the US and China of nearly $US350bn was un­ac­cept­able. Bizarrely, Trump said he did not blame China at all for this deficit. He blamed pre­vi­ous US ad­min­is­tra­tions. Trump has ef­fec­tively re­versed his past rhetoric about un­fair Chi­nese trade prac­tices. It all seems to pre-empt the judg­ment of in­ves­ti­ga­tions his ad­min­is­tra­tion is un­der­tak­ing into Bei­jing’s trade prac­tices.

What does this mean for fu­ture Trump trade pol­icy to­wards China? Prob­a­bly it means al­most noth­ing. One of the chal­lenges in analysing Trump is that his words today give you no ba­sis for judg­ing what his ac­tions might be to­mor­row. This is one of the key dy­nam­ics in the par­tial de­cline in US in­flu­ence in Asia un­der Trump.

More gen­er­ally, there is no sign of an in­te­grated China strat­egy from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump has a North Korea pol­icy and a trade pol­icy, nei­ther of which has been very suc­cess­ful so far, but he gives no sign of com­mu­ni­cat­ing an over­ar­ch­ing China strat­egy.

As Trump moves on to Viet­nam for APEC and then The Philip­pines for the East Asia Sum­mit, or at least the meet­ings lead­ing up to the EAS, there are some good and bad signs in Trump’s Asia pol­icy for Aus­tralia.

That Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has set out a vi­sion for a “free and open Indo-Pa­cific” is ex­tremely pos­i­tive for Aus­tralia. The Turn­bull and Ab­bott govern- ments have been ar­gu­ing to the Amer­i­cans for years that they should adopt an Indo-Pa­cific con­cep­tual frame­work for the re­gion.

India and Ja­pan are now Wash­ing­ton’s most im­por­tant nonChi­nese Asian in­ter­locu­tors. That this is ex­pressed as doc­trine at the top of the US sys­tem is a tri­umph for Aus­tralian diplo­macy and in­tel­lec­tual leadership.

Trump needs to do more with India. There are no signs yet of a Trump visit to India but this would be a very good thing in­deed.

Sim­i­larly, the re-emer­gence of the mod­est but sen­si­ble pro­posal for a Quadri­lat­eral Se­cu­rity Di­a­logue in­volv­ing the US, Ja­pan, India and Aus­tralia is a wholly pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment and one that should re­ceive bi­par­ti­san sup­port in Aus­tralia.

El­e­ments of Aus­tralia’s China lobby have given syco­phancy and slav­ish de­vo­tion to what­ever line comes out of Bei­jing a pos­i­tively bad name with their hys­ter­i­cal de­nun­ci­a­tions of the Quad, although such de­nun­ci­a­tions no doubt earn them credit in Bei­jing.

The pro­posed Quad is not a mil­i­tary al­liance, it is not even a se­cu­rity ar­range­ment; it is a di­a­logue of ex­actly the same type that we have with the Chi­nese them- selves and that the Chi­nese have with any num­ber of in­ter­locu­tors.

The idea that Bei­jing has a pre­emp­tive veto over who Aus­tralia can talk to about se­cu­rity is ab­surd and hu­mil­i­at­ing.

Stephen Smith, as for­eign min­is­ter in the Rudd govern­ment, did se­vere dam­age to our re­la­tion­ship with India when he peremp­to­rily with­drew from the Quad’s pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion and made no se­cret of the fact he was with­draw­ing to suck up to Bei­jing.

If La­bor wins power at the next elec­tion and re­peats this folly, it will dam­age Aus­tralia’s na­tional in­ter­est and con­vince New Delhi that La­bor is an anti-In­dian party.

The main down­side of Trump’s Asian pol­icy at the mo­ment is that it pays way too lit­tle at­ten­tion to South­east Asia. Trump has done some good things in South­east Asia, re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing Wash­ing­ton’s re­la­tion­ship with Bangkok, forg­ing a con­nec­tion with Malaysia’s Na­jib Razak, and even do­ing bet­ter with The Philip­pines’ Ro­drigo Duterte than you might have imag­ined. But there is a moun­tain of work for the Amer­i­cans to do in South­east Asia.

Still, this has been a good week, and we take good weeks where we can find them.


Clock­wise from above: an honour guard ready to meet Xi Jin­ping at the air­port in Da Nang yes­ter­day; Xi re­views the troops; Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ar­rives and Don­ald Trump speaks at the CEO sum­mit on the side­lines of the APEC con­fer­ence...

Don­ald Trump and Xi Jin­ping

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