Trump sticks to the sum­mitry script

Asian tour was free of ma­jor flare-ups, but US trade pol­icy still un­clear

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Ju­lian Borger

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.”

Jim Wat­son/Getty

Not so handy … Don­ald Trump strug­gles to get to grips with a lead­ers’ photo call in Manila

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