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 yesterday
Donald Trump and Xi Jinping