Why Trump’s tour of Asia has been a tri­umph

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SHOLTO BYRNES Sholto Byrnes is a se­nior fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Malaysia

It was sup­posed to be a dis­as­ter. Don­ald Trump’s Asia tour – at 12 days, the long­est since Ge­orge HW Bush’s in 1991 – was pre­dicted to pro­vide an em­bar­rass­ment of missteps, un­in­ten­tional of­fence, un­der­min­ing of old al­liances and diminu­tion of Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the world.

True, Mr Trump didn’t quite get the hang of the re­gional hand­shake on Mon­day, lead­ing to some awk­ward pho­to­graphs when he and his fel­low lead­ers were cross­ing arms and grip­ping hands at the 10-coun­try as­so­ci­a­tion’s sum­mit in Manila. But that was good-hu­moured. Mr Trump did also call North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “short and fat” in a tweet on Sun­day. Even that mes­sage had an up­side, how­ever. “I try so hard to be his friend,” con­tin­ued the pres­i­dent, “and maybe some­day that will hap­pen!”

It’s an un­usual ap­proach to diplo­macy, for sure, but if the two lead­ers could one day be friends, it would in­deed be, as Mr Trump said, “very, very nice”.

Apart from that, there has been no des­per­ate foot-in­mouth mo­ment. The US pres­i­dent has not shown up his coun­try or him­self. On the con­trary, he has been a po­lite and com­pli­men­tary guest in all the states he has vis­ited. He has re­as­sured South Korea by in­di­cat­ing his will­ing­ness to be less con­fronta­tional, both with Pyongyang over the nu­clear is­sue and with Seoul over trade. He was warm and ef­fu­sive in Bei­jing, and show­ered praise on the Philip­pines’ Ro­drigo Duterte for host­ing the Asean sum­mit and Malaysia’s Na­jib Razak for co­or­di­nat­ing US-Asean di­a­logue re­la­tions.

In­deed, what­ever out­stand­ing dif­fer­ences there may be be­tween Amer­ica and coun­tries in the re­gion, it is unar­guable that on a per­sonal level Mr Trump gets on bet­ter with the lead­ers he has met – from pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, to Mr Duterte and Mr Na­jib, and even Cam­bo­dia’s Hun Sen (with whom he was pho­tographed grin­ning and flash­ing a thumbs-up) – than any pres­i­dent from the Democrats would have done. Per­sonal re­la­tion­ships mat­ter, and in this area Mr Trump has ex­celled.

Mean­while, progress was made on other fronts. The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship 11 came closer to fix­ing the agree­ment so that it can still come into ef­fect with­out the US. Asean and China agreed to start talks on a code of con­duct for the South China Sea. Mr Trump can take credit for nei­ther de­vel­op­ment – his of­fer to me­di­ate in the com­plex mar­itime dis­putes in the South China Sea was well-mean­ing but no one took it se­ri­ously – but equally nei­ther has the US un­der his ad­min­is­tra­tion been a spoiler.

When Mr Trump an­nounced that he would be with­draw­ing from the TPP some as­sumed the agree­ment would col­lapse. In­stead it is go­ing ahead any­way. It turns out that the “ex­cep­tional na­tion” is not so “in­dis­pens­able” – as for­mer sec­re­tary of state Madeleine Al­bright put it – af­ter all. Also note­wor­thy was Mr Trump’s re­vival of the “quad”, in which se­nior of­fi­cials from the US, Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and In­dia agreed to co­op­er­ate in forg­ing a “free, open, pros­per­ous and in­clu­sive Indo-Pa­cific re­gion”.

For all the talk of the US aban­don­ing its po­si­tion in the world, that at least in­di­cated it is not dis­ap­pear­ing. It is, per­haps, just ap­proach­ing East Asia and be­yond in a dif­fer­ent way.

This is a point that crit­ics are miss­ing. Mr Obama’s press sec­re­tary Jay Carney at­tacked Mr Trump for let­ting China “dic­tate press ac­cess” – that is, not al­low­ing ques­tions - when he made a joint ap­pear­ance in Bei­jing with Mr Xi. “The Chi­nese try this ev­ery time,” tweeted Mr Carney. “It’s a test of will and prin­ci­ple.” Agree­ing to China’s re­quest, he said, was “an em­bar­rass­ing ca­pit­u­la­tion.” CNN ed­i­to­ri­alised – in what was os­ten­si­bly a news re­port – that Mr Trump had for­feited “a po­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity to push Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping to face the press”.

But maybe Mr Trump, who has no love for the me­dia him­self, had no wish to do so. Hu­man rights cam­paign­ers can­not fail to be aware by now that they have no like mind in the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the White House (and nor par­tic­u­larly in his sec­re­tary of state). Why would Mr Trump want to force Mr Xi to an­swer ques­tions that he would find em­bar­rass­ing or of­fen­sive? The at­tack on the US pres­i­dent berated him for not do­ing some­thing he most likely didn’t want to do in the first place – as is surely sim­i­larly in­di­cated by his re­fusal to con­demn Mr Duterte’s war on drugs, in­stead hail­ing his “great re­la­tion­ship” with the Philip­pines’ leader.

More on the money was Mike Chi­noy of the US-China In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, whom the Wash­ing­ton Post quoted as say­ing: “Trump seems very com­fort­able with strong­men. It’s not just that he won’t criticise Duterte. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if he pat­ted him on the back.”

Mr Trump is be­ing lam­basted by those who ex­pect an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to put hu­man rights and democ­racy pro­mo­tion at the top of his or her agenda. Nei­ther are pri­or­i­ties for Mr Trump – and they are not ex­actly top of the list for many of the lead­ers the US pres­i­dent has been meet­ing with over the last few days.

So for both sides – and, I would ar­gue, ob­jec­tively speak­ing – Don­ald Trump’s Asia tour has been quite a suc­cess. What one com­men­ta­tor refers to as “the pa­rade of the aghast” will of course dis­agree. But can even they not ad­mit that while the bar of ex­pec­ta­tions may have been set low, the US pres­i­dent has un­ques­tion­ably cleared it? Com­pared with the el­der Mr Bush’s ill-starred tour – which ended with the then pres­i­dent be­ing sick in the Ja­panese prime min­is­ter’s lap – Mr Trump has done very well.

The fact that he will be the first to boast about it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give him credit when it’s due.

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