Trump sticks to the summitry script
Asian tour was free of major flare-ups, but US trade policy still unclear
After 12 days of summits in five countries on the Pacific rim, Donald Trump returned to Washington on Tuesday leaving behind a region largely relieved that the US president did not worsen relations but still confused about his administration’s policies in Asia.
Trump said he would deliver what he promised would be a “major statement” on North Korea and trade, the headline themes of the trip. From past experience that seemed likely to be an upbeat assessment. Several times along the road he described his reception as unprecedented and claimed that “big progress” had been made on trade deals.
In the region, the general reaction appears to be that the tour had gone better than expected, but in some cases that was set against very low expectations. In South Korea, for example, there were fears that Trump’s spat with Kim Jong-un could result in a rise in hostilities while he was in the region. That did not happen. The US president did have one Twitter flare-up, after he left the Korean peninsula lashing out at Kim Jong-un, who he said had insulted him by calling him old: “When I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” However, he did conclude his tweet on a more soothing note, claiming: “I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”
On his visits to Japan and South Korea, where the challenge of containing North Korea was the focus, his tone was on the whole more measured and resolute than expected. In South Korea, where officials had worried about the lack of chemistry between Trump and president Moon Jae-in, and the US president’s previous threats to tear up a bilateral trade deal and make Seoul pay for US-made missile defence systems, Trump’s speech about the strength of the bilateral relationship to the national parliament went down particularly well.
“The national assembly speech was a surprise. It was really well received,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “It showed Trump valued the alliance and he showed he knew the history. The Koreans bought it.”
Terry also said the Seoul government welcomed the fact that Trump made no further threats of unilateral strikes against North Korea, and appeared to point towards the possibility of some form of diplomatic “off-ramp” from the current military buildup and mutual threats.
From the point of view of regional security and shoring up Pacific alliances against both North Korea and Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, many observers said the trip had gone relatively well.
“In general it went as scripted,” said Patrick Cronin, a senior director of the Asia-Pacific security programme at the Centre for a New American Security. “It was concentrated in north-east Asia on a pressure strategy on North Korea. It was meant to build off our alliances and partnerships and in all cases, the leaders who met with President Trump who are our allies and partners came away with more positive feelings than not.”
The overall title of the administration’s strategy is a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and to that end, the tour marked the revival of the “Quad”: an association of the US, Japan, India and Australia. Senior officials from the four countries met in the sidelines of the Manila summit.
However, it is unclear how this grouping would act as a counterweight to China’s rising power in the region, and how it squared with Trump’s “America first” trade strategy, based on walking away from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was supposed to be an economic bulwark against Beijing’s power, and Trump’s insistence on renegotiating trade relationships with allies in Asia, to benefit the US.
“If the administration’s central goal here was to reaffirm American commitment and remove concerns about the future of US leadership in the region, I don’t think they significantly moved the needle in terms of alleviating anxiety in the region,” said Ely Ratner, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The contradictions between the America first agenda and a strategy predicated on US leadership in the region have not been resolved. And without an affirmative US trade and investment strategy, its unclear how they will be. That’s clearly the achilles heel here.”
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