Trump heads home with ‘America First’ ring­ing in Asian ears

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

As Air Force One took off from Manila yes­ter­day 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 b***h” 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 US 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 goit-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 US 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 last year 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”. US busi­nesses signed around $250 bil­lion 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 US 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 be­hav­iour 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. —Reuters

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