On Trump’s trade trip to Asia, na­tions keep his one-on-one dance card empty


As he trav­eled across Asia, Pres­i­dent Trump touted a flurry of multi­bil­lion-dol­lar mil­i­tary sales and one-off busi­ness deals with na­tions he vis­ited. Upon his re­turn to the White House this week, he is pledg­ing to un­veil more, boast­ing that his hand­i­work is “far big­ger than any­thing you know.”

But the 12-day trip also un­der­scored how lit­tle progress Trump has made on a far more sweep­ing pledge cen­tral to his “Amer­ica first” vi­sion: re­plac­ing mul­ti­lat­eral trade agree­ments — which he has long railed against but ev­ery U.S. pres­i­dent since Harry S. Tru­man has em­braced — with one-onone deals more “fair” to the United States.

“None of the trad­ing part­ners, par­tic­u­larly in Asia, seem to be en­thused about such a prospect,” said Wendy Cut­ler, a long­time U.S. trade of­fi­cial who now serves as vice pres­i­dent of the Asia So­ci­ety Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

The most pointed ev­i­dence of that came dur­ing Trump’s visit to Viet­nam, where news broke that the re­main­ing 11 na­tions in­volved in the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, in­clud­ing Ja­pan, were mov­ing on with­out the United States.

Trump, on his third day in of­fice, signed an ex­ec­u­tive mem­o­ran­dum with­draw­ing the United States from the 12-na­tion pact that had been painstak­ingly ne­go­ti­ated over a decade by two of his White House pre­de­ces­sors.

The re­main­ing na­tions are “all very much fo­cused on that” rather than bro­ker­ing sep­a­rate agree­ments with the United States, said Harry Kazia­nis, an Asia scholar at the Cen­ter for the Na­tional In­ter­est. “They’re fo­cused on the deal clos­est to the ta­ble.”

In some cases, pol­i­tics at home make it dif­fi­cult to move for­ward in­de­pen­dently with the United States, ex­perts say.

In craft­ing the TPP, for ex­am­ple, Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe spent con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal with the pow­er­ful farm­ing lobby in his coun­try to open its agri­cul­tural mar­ket.

“They’re not go­ing to give more ground to Trump than they have al­ready,” Kazia­nis said.

Fol­low­ing Trump’s de­par­ture from Ja­pan last week, Ja­panese Fi­nance Min­is­ter Taro Aso said that his na­tion had no in­ten­tion of sign­ing a bi­lat­eral agree­ment with the United States and would work to bring down the U.S. trade deficit with Ja­pan via more mod­est steps.

Cut­ler said that na­tions in Asia have watched with puz­zle­ment as Trump seeks to rene­go­ti­ate NAFTA with two close U.S. al­lies — Canada and Mex­ico — and seeks to rene­go­ti­ate a sep­a­rate trade deal with South Korea amid a nu­clear cri­sis in the re­gion.

“My sense is every­one would pre­fer to wait to see what hap­pens” in those ne­go­ti­a­tions be­fore mov­ing for­ward, Cut­ler said.

Trump boost­ers say that it’s un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect his tough talk on trade to trans­late im­me­di­ately into new agree­ments — and that it’s not nec­es­sar­ily ad­van­ta­geous to move quickly.

“Trump is a ne­go­tia­tor,” said Her­itage Foun­da­tion fel­low Stephen Moore, who ad­vised Trump on eco­nomic is­sues dur­ing last year’s cam­paign. “All of these coun­tries need to trade with the United States more than we need to trade with them. Why not use that as a bar­gain­ing chip? Trump is play­ing coy with some of these coun­tries. He doesn’t have to be in a huge hurry to get this done.”

As he pre­pared to re­turn home, Trump took to Twit­ter to make the case that his meet­ings with Asian lead­ers marked a start to­ward more trade deals “un­like the hor­ror shows from past Ad­min­is­tra­tions.”

“Af­ter my tour of Asia, all Coun­tries deal­ing with us on TRADE know that the rules have changed,” Trump tweeted Mon­day. “The United States has to be treated fairly and in a re­cip­ro­cal fash­ion. The mas­sive TRADE deficits must go down quickly!”

On the trip, Trump’s an­nounce­ments were plen­ti­ful but lim­ited to mil­i­tary sales and in­di­vid­ual busi­ness deals rather than larger trad­ing frame­works. And it wasn’t clear that ev­ery­thing an­nounced would come to fruition.

In China, for ex­am­ple, the largest project un­veiled was a plan by China En­ergy In­vest­ment Corp. to in­vest $83.7 bil­lion in power gen­er­a­tion, chem­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing and un­der­ground stor­age of nat­u­ral gas liq­uids and de­riv­a­tives in West Vir­ginia. But the two sides signed only a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing, not a con­tract, and the eye-pop­ping fig­ure cov­ers a 20-year pe­riod, the state said.

“One of the no­table as­pects of this trip is the paucity of out­comes it pro­duced,” said Ryan Haas, an Asia ex­pert on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staff in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion who is now at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “It ap­pears Don­ald Trump in­vested a lot of en­ergy into de­vel­op­ing good chem­istry with other lead­ers, but we haven’t yet seen that trans­late into good out­comes for U.S. cit­i­zens.”

Patrick Cronin, an Asia ex­pert at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity, said even bi­lat­eral deals can take time to de­velop and that Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is “try­ing to walk a tightrope.”

On the one hand, it’s stay­ing faith­ful to the “Amer­ica first” rhetoric of a Trump cam­paign that ap­pealed to vot­ers who have felt left be­hind by glob­al­iza­tion. On the other hand, the ad­min­is­tra­tion doesn’t want to exit the sys­tem al­to­gether.

“It’s try­ing to color out­side the lines but not tear up the whole book,” Cronin said.

Trump’s dis­dain for multi­na­tional deals was high­lighted through­out his five-na­tion swing.

“I will make bi­lat­eral trade agree­ments with any Indo-Pa­cific na­tion that wants to be our part­ner and that will abide by the prin­ci­ples of fair and re­cip­ro­cal trade,” the pres­i­dent said at the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit in Danang, Viet­nam. “What we will no longer do is en­ter into large agree­ments that tie our hands, sur­ren­der our sovereignty and make mean­ing­ful en­force­ment prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble.”

The remarks rep­re­sent Trump’s long-stand­ing world view. In March, less than six weeks into his pres­i­dency, he told Congress that boost­ing jobs and eco­nomic growth in the United States re­quired “fo­cus­ing on bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions rather than mul­ti­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions — and by rene­go­ti­at­ing and re­vis­ing trade agree­ments when our goals are not be­ing met.”

The pres­i­dent also promised to “ag­gres­sively de­fend Amer­i­can sovereignty over trade pol­icy,” a jab at the 164-na­tion World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which was es­tab­lished in 1995 with U.S. sup­port. The global trad­ing body ad­min­is­ters the ar­cane rules that gov­ern cross-bor­der com­merce, me­di­ates dis­putes be­tween mem­ber na­tions and pre­sides over ne­go­ti­a­tions aimed at fur­ther trade lib­er­al­iza­tion.

Its role as a dis­pute fo­rum has irked Trump, who sees the rul­ings of a Geneva-based group of ex­perts as an in­fringe­ment upon U.S. au­thor­ity. Though the United States has won the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of cases it has filed over other na­tions’ trade poli­cies, it has lost a sim­i­lar share of the com­plaints filed against it. “Sim­ply put, we have not been treated fairly by the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion,” the pres­i­dent said in Danang.

That view is dis­puted by many cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives and other trade pro­fes­sion­als. “The mul­ti­lat­eral ap­proach is ul­ti­mately the best way for­ward,” said Alan Wolff, deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral of the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, who said in Wash­ing­ton this week that the ad­min­is­tra­tion had aban­doned 70 years of U.S. lead­er­ship.

One in­di­ca­tion that the United States needs the WTO: Wash­ing­ton lacks bi­lat­eral free-trade agree­ments with seven trad­ing part­ners out of its top 10.

If the pres­i­dent fol­lows through on his threats to with­draw from NAFTA, Euro­pean and Asian ex­porters might soon en­joy pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to the Cana­dian mar­ket that U.S. com­pa­nies would lack, said Ru­fus Yerxa, pres­i­dent of the in­dus­try-backed Na­tional For­eign Trade Coun­cil.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crit­ics fear a re­turn to the sort of tit-for­tat trade wars that stran­gled twothirds of global trade in the 1930s.

Yerxa, speak­ing at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, called the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s go-it-alone in­stinct “a sig­nal that the U.S. is mov­ing in re­v­erse on trade just at a time when the rest of the world is mov­ing on fast for­ward.”

The pres­i­dent’s pop­ulist stance has opened an un­usual gap be­tween a Repub­li­can White House and the busi­ness com­mu­nity. Nei­ther Trump’s pref­er­ence for bi­lat­eral deals nor some of his spe­cific goals in the NAFTA rene­go­ti­a­tion — in­clud­ing a “sun­set clause” that would kill the treaty ev­ery five years un­less it were re­newed — are shared by the cor­po­rate world.

“What’s the endgame here? If we do un­der­mine the WTO, if we do call into ques­tion the rules­based trad­ing sys­tem, what’s the bet­ter sys­tem?” Sarah Thorn, se­nior di­rec­tor for gov­ern­ment re­la­tions at Wal­mart, asked at the CSIS this week.


Pres­i­dent Trump speaks last week in Danang, Viet­nam, on the fi­nal day of the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit. His trip un­der­scored how lit­tle progress he has made on a cen­tral pledge.

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