Flat­tery from Asia, but lit­tle else

Trump’s five-na­tion trip yields no ma­jor progress on trade and North Korea.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Brian Ben­nett and Noah Bier­man brian.ben­nett@la­times.com noah.bier­man @la­times.com Bier­man re­ported from Manila and Ben­nett from Bei­jing.

BEI­JING — In the photo, Pres­i­dent Trump and Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping stand shoul­der to shoul­der in front of the yel­low-tiled palace where em­per­ors ruled the Mid­dle King­dom, as China called it­self for cen­turies.

It was the first time a U.S. pres­i­dent had stood for a por­trait with the head of China’s Com­mu­nist Party in the mid­dle of the an­cient For­bid­den City, what has long been the psy­chic heart of China. The next day the coun­try’s state-con­trolled news­pa­pers ran the image across their front pages.

Trump had been in Bei­jing only for a few hours, but al­ready Xi had got­ten what he wanted: to be seen, in­side China at least, as an equal to the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. What re­mains un­clear is what Trump has got­ten.

Just hours af­ter his ar­rival, the pres­i­dent had demon­strated how will­ing he was to be flat­tered and to f lat­ter back, while get­ting lit­tle in re­turn, at least for now.

Trump’s grand re­cep­tion in China was a high­light of his 12-day, five-coun­try tour of Asia, where the specter of Bei­jing’s su­per­power as­pi­ra­tions is at the cen­ter of every other re­la­tion­ship the United States has in the re­gion. Un­easy part­ners tried to game out how the U.S. in­tends to counter China’s rise while per­suad­ing it to bring its full weight to bear on re­solv­ing the North Korean nu­clear cri­sis.

They still don’t have an­swers. Like China, each coun­try — Ja­pan, South Korea, Viet­nam and the Philip­pines — gave Trump the red-car­pet treat­ment, and for the proud pres­i­dent, that alone seemed proof of his diplo­matic suc­cess.

“It was a red car­pet like I think prob­a­bly no­body has ever re­ceived. That re­ally is a sense of re­spect, per­haps for me a lit­tle bit, but re­ally for our coun­try, and I’m very proud of that,” Trump said on Mon­day in the Philip­pines, his last stop.

He and top ad­vi­sors say that be­fore long the shows of re­spect will trans­late into ac­tion on trade and North Korea. “The fruits of our la­bor are go­ing to be in­cred­i­ble,” Trump said.

They aren’t ev­i­dent yet. China re­mains re­sis­tant to crack­ing down on North Korea eco­nom­i­cally, de­spite Trump’s en­treaties. As for trade, the pres­i­dent an­nounced

Trump ‘seemed far more in­ter­ested in pomp and cir­cum­stance ... than ad­vanc­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­ests.’ — Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)

no firm deals or ac­tual progress to­ward bi­lat­eral agree­ments to re­duce U.S. trade deficits with the Asian na­tions, aside from claims of up to $300 bil­lion in busi­ness deals that Amer­i­can and for­eign com­pa­nies promised. Fly­ing home Tues­day, Trump sug­gested the fig­ure could reach $1 tril­lion, but ob­servers sug­gested even the $300-bil­lion sum is in­flated.

The pres­i­dent’s chal­lenge is that he is ask­ing the na­tions to do more on North Korea even as he is de­mand­ing they get less on trade.

Also, he sent mixed mes­sages. Along­side Xi in Bei­jing, Trump blamed his pre­de­ces­sors for trade prac­tices that, as a can­di­date, he’d la­beled as eco­nomic rape, and he ap­plauded China for get­ting away with it. Once he’d left, in Viet­nam Trump re­turned to at­tack­ing China.

In a speech in Seoul be­fore the South Korean Na­tional Assem­bly, Trump first de­scribed at length the hor­rors of life in North Korea un­der the op­pres­sive Kim dy­nasty, then in­vited Kim Jong Un to the ta­ble to talk about end­ing his nu­clear pro­gram. He also posted the sort of provoca­tive tweet — call­ing Kim “short and fat” in re­sponse to the North Korean leader’s taunts — that so wor­ries al­lies like South Korea liv­ing within close range of North Korea’s mis­siles.

In China, Trump had to spend down some of his guanxi, or in­flu­ence, with Xi al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter three UCLA bas­ket­ball play­ers were ar­rested there on sus­pi­cion of shoplift­ing. Trump asked Xi to help resolve the case quickly, and on Tues­day the play­ers were al­lowed to board a flight to Los An­ge­les.

The take-away for the coun­tries other than China may have been Trump’s sheer pres­ence, sig­nal­ing that Amer­ica wants to re­main a player in the re­gion de­spite his re­pu­di­a­tion of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a mul­ti­lat­eral trade pact bro­kered by then-Pres­i­dent Obama and in­tended to counter China’s eco­nomic clout.

Yet there were also signs of how Trump’s “Amer­ica first” re­treat from mul­ti­lat­eral trade lead­er­ship had left the United States some­what side­lined. One of the most con­crete re­sults of the Asian sum­mits Trump at­tended was a sep­a­rate res­o­lu­tion among the other 11 TPP sig­na­to­ries, led by Ja­pan, that they would en­force the trade agree­ment with­out the United States.

Trump bol­stered his re­la­tion­ship with Ja­pan by vis­it­ing that coun­try first, golf­ing and din­ing with Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, who seemed will­ing to play side­kick in Trump’s buddy movie; when Abe ac­ci­den­tally tum­bled into a sand trap, Trump walked non­cha­lantly away.

In the Philip­pines, a long­time ally that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is ea­ger to keep from China’s sphere, Trump dis­played a stun­ning rap­port with Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte de­spite the strong­man’s sorry record on hu­man rights, go­ing so far as to join Duterte in pub­licly mock­ing Obama for his es­trange­ment from Duterte.

Trump’s crit­ics were quick to crit­i­cize his trip as long on pageantry and short on sub­stance. Se­nate Demo­cratic leader Charles E. Schumer called Trump’s tour “a flop” and a missed op­por­tu­nity to do more to counter China.

“He seemed far more in­ter­ested in pomp and cir­cum­stance — red car­pets, fancy meals and the flat­tery of for­eign lead­ers — than ad­vanc­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­ests in a re­gion that is in­creas­ingly look­ing to China for lead­er­ship,” Schumer said.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials sug­gested that tougher moves on trade, par­tic­u­larly with China, and on se­cu­rity are in the off­ing. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly sum­ma­rized the trip as “set­ting up the dis­cus­sion” about trade im­bal­ances and North Korea.

Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Lighthizer — a long­time China-trade hawk — Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross and Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven T. Mnuchin have been con­sid­er­ing a va­ri­ety of puni­tive mea­sures to squeeze China on trade if it doesn’t re­spond to Trump’s ca­jol­ing.

Back home, the pres­i­dent will be un­der pres­sure from both Democrats and the anti-glob­al­ists in his party to pur­sue a harder line against China, said Ely Rat­ner, who was a se­nior ad­vi­sor to then-Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden. “The happy ve­neer of the visit is on pretty thin ice. I don’t think it will last long.”

Though Trump promised a ma­jor an­nounce­ment at the White House on Wed­nes­day or Thurs­day to pro­vide more de­tails about the re­sults from the trip, top aides sought to lower ex­pec­ta­tions.

“While we ap­pre­ci­ate the long hours and the ef­fort that our Chi­nese coun­ter­parts have put into those trade dis­cus­sions, quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a $300- to $500-bil­lion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small,” Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son told re­porters in Bei­jing.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they got fur­ther in their ef­forts to en­list China in con­fronting North Korea, which re­lies on Bei­jing’s eco­nomic sup­port, though they still lacked a con­crete plan on what may be the tough­est is­sue that Trump in­her­ited. “The Chi­nese are pony­ing up,” Kelly said.

Tiller­son said Xi and other Chi­nese of­fi­cials “have been very clear and un­equiv­o­cal they will not ac­cept a North Korea with nu­clear weapons.” But the two pow­ers do not agree on tac­tics, tim­ing and how much pres­sure to put on Py­ongyang de­spite what Tiller­son said was “a lot [time] ex­chang­ing views.”

The Chi­nese be­lieve sanc­tions are be­gin­ning to hurt Kim’s gov­ern­ment and need more time.

The two is­sues — trade and North Korea — also dom­i­nated Trump’s dis­cus­sions with close al­lies. Those too were com­pli­cated. Trump tried to re­as­sure Ja­pan that it does not need to pur­sue its own nu­clear pro­gram, while de­mand­ing that the coun­try spend more money to de­fend it­self.

Trump sought to unify the re­gion un­der what he calls an “Indo-Pa­cific” um­brella, but that re­mains a chal­lenge. The term sug­gests the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s aim to en­large the cir­cle of ma­jor democ­ra­cies, no­tably to in­clude In­dia and Aus­tralia, be­hind a re­gional strat­egy of open trade chan­nels and re­sis­tance to China’s ef­forts at dom­i­nance. In Viet­nam, at the an­nual Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit, Trump re­ferred re­peat­edly to the im­por­tance of na­tional sovereignty, a sig­nal of sup­port to smaller na­tions fret­ful about China.

Al­though other na­tions at the sum­mit de­clared suc­cess to­ward sal­vaging the TPP, Trump made no tan­gi­ble progress on the oneon-one trade deals that he has promised as an al­ter­na­tive to sweep­ing mul­ti­lat­eral pacts.

“If you are against the Chi­nese alone, China will fire back,” warned Michael Green, who was an Asia ad­vi­sor to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. TPP and other such mul­ti­lat­eral al­liances make the United States part of a united front with other large mar­kets, like Ja­pan and Canada, mak­ing it bet­ter able to with­stand any tit-for­tat trade re­tal­i­a­tions by China, Green said.

“When China gets tough,” he added, “we will find our­selves feel­ing iso­lated.”

Andrew Harnik Associated Press

PRES­I­DENT TRUMP at­tends a sum­mit in Manila with na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor H.R. McMaster, left, and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son. “The fruits of our la­bor are go­ing to be in­cred­i­ble,” Trump said of his trip.

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