POMP, BUT HOW MUCH CIRCUMSTANCE?

The red carpet was rolled out for the president, but Raymond Whitaker asks whether the trip achieved any of his aims

It lasted 12 days, took in five Asian countries and saw meetings with some of the world’s most powerful leaders. The longest and most gruelling foreign tour of Donald Trump’s presidency so far was intended to signal how important the region was to America, but as is common with this most uncommon of US leaders, his message was often confused and self-contradictory.

Those taking a positive view tended to seek relief in what did not happen. The 71-year-old Trump, the oldest person ever elected to the White House, did not succumb to exhaustion, nor did he perpetrate any major gaffes. Facing electoral setbacks, investigation of his Russian links, and Congressional difficulties at home, the president found much balm for his ego in the ceremonial lavished on him during his tour, particularly his ‘state visit plus’ reception in Beijing, where he was the first foreign leader invited to dine in the historic Forbidden City since the Communist revolution in 1948.

Trump had three main objectives on his tour

Trump was also fêted in Japan, his first stop, where he enjoyed several rounds of golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, where American troops first landed during their disastrous intervention in the country’s civil war.But amid all the flattery, how much did the trip achieve?

Trump had three main objectives on his tour. The first, indicated by his constant use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the region instead of the more usual ‘Asia-Pacific’, was to incorporate India and the subcontinent into the common vision of Asia. As a friendly power and the continent’s third-largest economy, the US administration sees India as an important counterweight to China, a bulwark against Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence through the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.

Speaking to fellow leaders at APEC, of which India is not a member, the presidentrepeatedly called for ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific’. He later had a cordial meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Manila, the final stop on his trip, having stayed on to join leaders attendingthe annual meeting of the East Asia summit, which brings together a dozen nations, including India.Trump ruffled feathers, however, by flying home before the summit concluded, another instance of mixed messages on a journey where his other two principal aims – to build a coalition against North Korea, but to reject a common approach to trade – seemed contradictory.

In a powerful scripted speech to the South Korean parliament, the president sought to rally the world against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. He was only 120 miles away from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and would have gone even closer if his proposed visit to the demilitarised zone that divides the Korean peninsula had not been cancelled because of fog.

Addressing Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong-un, directly, Trump said: ‘North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather [Kim Il Sung] envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves.’Describing North Korea as ‘a country ruled as a cult’, he continued: ‘At the centre of this military cult is a deranged belief in the leader’s destiny to rule as parent-protector over a conquered Korean Peninsula and an enslaved Korean people.’ The success of South Korea discredited ‘the dark fantasy at the heart of the Kim regime’.

Although he went on to condemn slave-like conditions for North Korean workers, child malnutrition, the suppression of religion and ‘torture, starvation, rape and murder on a constant basis’ in the country’s forced-labour prison camps, South Koreans were relieved that Trump did not repeat his recent threat when speaking at the United Nations to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea, and avoided any personal invective against Kim, whom he called ‘Rocket Man’ in the same UN address.

In a powerful scripted speech to the South Korean parliament, the president sought to rally the world against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

(Characteristically, however, Trump could not restrain himself indefinitely. After North Korea responded to his speech by calling him a ‘lunatic old man’, the president tweeted: ‘Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat”? Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend.’ Extraordinarily, Trump seemed more offended by the reference to his age than to his mental condition.)

In his Seoul speech the president clearly had his eye on his next stop, Beijing, where he took the pomp that greeted him as a token of his ‘very good chemistry’ with his counterpart, Xi Jinping. This visit was where he needed to make most progress on both North Korea and trade, but on neither could he be said to have come away with anything significant.

Acknowledging that China had taken some steps to restrict trade and financial relationships with North Korea, Trump implied Beijing could do more. ‘China can fix this problem easily and quickly,’ he told an audience of US and Chinese officials and business executives. ‘I know one thing about your president, if he works on it hard it will happen. There’s no doubt about it.’

When it came to trade, Trump went to the lengths of blaming his predecessors, up to and including Barack Obama, rather than Beijing for the ‘out-of-kilter’ economic relationship between the two countries. ‘Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?’ he asked.‘I give China great credit. In actuality, I blame past [US] administrations for allowing this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and to grow.’Through all this, Xi remained much more inscrutable, demonstrating the flaws in Trump’s transactional, one-to-one approach to dealing with issues.

It was a philosophy that reached its apotheosis in the president’s blunt address to APEC, when he told Pacific Rim leaders that he did not want to work with them collectively. ‘We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of any more,’ he said. ‘I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.

‘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. What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.’

Trump (back row, centre) in a ‘family’ photo of APEC leaders at Da Nang, Vietnam, Nov. 11
Trump (back row, centre) in a ‘family’ photo of APEC leaders at Da Nang, Vietnam, Nov. 11

Before each stop on his tour, Trump made a point of spelling out the dollar total of the US trade deficit with that country, and in this speech he used rhetoric that appeared to be aimed more at his supporters back home than the audience in front of him. His critics pointed out that he seems to view trade as a zero-sum game in which one party loses if the other gains, rather than a system that can profit all participants.It was not the only time on his travels when the president became embroiledin domestic political wrangles.

In Vietnam, all eyes were on his bilateral meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, whose country is accused of interfering in the US election to bring him to power, something Trump denies furiously. During his trip he had already denounced those who wanted to investigate his ties to Russia as ‘haters and fools’, and said the former heads of three US intelligence agencies, all of which concluded that Russia did meddle in the 2016 election, were ‘political hacks’, only to say later that he did not dispute the assessment.

After the meeting Trump said: ‘I believe that President Putin really feels – and he feels strongly – that he did not meddle in our election. Every time he sees me, he says, “I didn’t do that.” And I believe – I really believe – that when he tells me that, he means it.’ Once again this raised the question of whether he trusted Putin more than his own intelligence agencies.

Two of the Obama-era intelligence chiefs attacked by Trump retorted that he was being duped by Xi and Putin. ‘I think he seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet, honour guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office,’ said James Clapper, former director of national intelligence. ‘That appeals to him, and it plays to his insecurities. I do think that both the Chinese and the Russians can play him.’ This was ‘very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint’, said former CIA director John Brennan – worrisome too for those countries which rely on America for their security.

The fear is that the US under Donald Trump is coming to appear increasingly irrelevant on the world stage, allowing others to step forward. This impression was reinforced by what happened a day after the president’s aggressive speech at APEC. Eleven Pacific Rim countries announced that they would continue with the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact, from which Trump withdrew as soon as he took office. The TPP was carefully designed by Obama to exclude China; now it appears that Beijing will take America’s place.

‘At the end of the day,’ said a Singapore-based analyst, ‘“America First” may devolve into the US being home alone.’ The question is whether Trump cares.


A former Asia Editor of The Independent and Foreign Editor of the Independent on Sunday, Raymond Whitaker is Editor of Asian Affairs 

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