Trump’s tour of Asia: an emperor with no clothes

US President Donald Trump & Chinese President Xi Jinping

By Jude Woodward

Despite the razzamatazz of Trump’s visit to Asia, the verdict of the international news media was unanimous: the trip had simply served to underline the US’s declining influence in Asia; a decline that Trump is blamed for accelerating by ceding leadership to China on the crucial issues of contemporary geopolitics: trade, climate change, development and multilateral agreements.

This was reflected most clearly towards the end of the trip at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Vietnam. Trump cut an almost irrelevant and isolated figure, whose bombastic speech was peppered with dire threats on trade that were simply ignored by his audience. In telling contrast, speaking soon after Trump, China’s president Xi Jinping, talked about the positive role of globalisation and the contribution of a ‘multilateral trading regime’ to ensuring developing countries ‘benefit more from international trade and investment’ in which China pledged to play a key role.

Thus, while the changing relationship of forces between China and the West is primarily down to the continuing contrast between China’s rapid growth and the West’s relative stagnation, which predated Trump, there is no doubt that his ‘America First’ framework and isolationist foreign policy have further weakened the position of the US internationally and especially in Asia.

A recent survey conducted in 37 countries by the Pew Research Center showed that international confidence in American leadership has declined sharply in the last year, particularly in some of the key countries of the Asia-Pacific. In South Korea and Japan confidence in the US president to make the right decisions internationally fell by 71 and 54 percentage points respectively. In Indonesia it fell by 41 percentage points and even in pro-US Philippines it fell by 25 points. As the Washington Post put it: ‘This is nothing short of a disaster for American soft power’.

It is a contradictory fact for those sections of the international and American left that still have illusions in Clinton that despite Trump’s appeal to right-wing populism, racist immigration policies and proposed tax cuts for the rich, there is no doubt that if Hillary Clinton had become president she would have pursued a more aggressive US line internationally, against China, Russia and in the Middle East, not just in words – à la Trump – but in deeds.

Probably the most decisive single act in weakening the US position in Asia was Trump’s decision to pull out from the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Clinton may have also said that the deal was flawed, but she had left herself a number of let-out clauses that suggested if elected President she would probably have found a way to go ahead. The US abandoning the TPP was a major blow to its standing in the region, not least because most of the other signatories had ridden out substantial domestic oppositions to get agreement through their respective legislatures. They did not like being marched up to the top of the hill only to be left standing exposed.

Moreover, despite correct criticisms of the TPP by oppositions within the signatory countries, the deal did put something on the table for both sides. Obama’s administration, which had driven the entire process, had also faced resistance in getting the TPP through Congress, precisely because it pledged the other signatories significant new openings to the US market – albeit in return for accepting effective US regulation of their domestic economic policies, opening up their own markets to US imports and, of course, distancing themselves from China.

Trump’s alternative vision of new bilateral trade negotiations with the US has gone down like a lead balloon with potential partners. As the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee, put it entirely accurately when on a visit to Washington: ‘I think [the Trump administration] believe that, bilaterally, you are bigger than any other partner that comes along and so you get a better deal. As a result of which I think not that many partners will be keen to deal with you bilaterally.’[i] Even Japan has resisted Trump’s blandishments to enter bilateral trade talks.

Thus while US domestic protectionist lobbies and others applauded Trump for pulling out of the TPP, it was greeted with consternation in US foreign policy circles, as it left the US with no economic or trade initiative to counter China. As if to underline this, it was while most of the original TPP signatories were with Trump at the APEC summit in Vietnam that they chose to announce their plans to resuscitate the deal without the participation of the US.

Worse, immediately after Trump left the ASEAN meeting in the Philippines, the first full summit of the 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership convened also without the US. The RCEP, which has been driven by China, would be an even wider trade deal than the TPP, including China, India and South Korea, which are not partners to the TPP. This RCEP, likely to be agreed next year, will involve tariff reductions in economies that together constitute a quarter of the world economy.

The announcement that the TPP would go ahead without the US and the first summit of the RCEP were graphic illustrations of just how little the US is seen to contribute to the economic development of the Asia-Pacific region. But the TPP and RCEP were just the ones that came up during the trip. Other China-led investment and development initiatives are setting an entirely new economic agenda in Asia. These include the establishment of the $100bn Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the US tried and failed to bloc in 2015; and the gigantic Belt and Road Initiative to develop land and sea transport and communications infrastructure from East Asia to Europe, involving 60 countries and projecting upwards of $4tr in investment over coming years.

While everywhere Trump went he was treated to a charm offensive, the pomp was almost in inverse proportion to his actual influence. In Japan Prime Minister Abe described Trump as his ‘favourite guy’ (to play golf with!) – before announcing the relaunch of the TPP without the US a few days later. In South Korea he was introduced at the National Assembly as ‘leader of the world’, while President Moon oiled that Trump was ‘already making America great’ again. But immediately on Trump’s departure South Korea announced a reset of its relations with China and limits to the deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile system that China objected to. In the Philippines President Duterte sang Trump a Filipino love song at their gala dinner, but continued to reorient his country to China and turned down any role for the US in the South China Sea.

For its part, China did not throw around such personal praise during Trump’s visit, but the red carpet was rolled out for him in every respect.

But despite the glitz, Trump will find it hard to show what he brought home from the trip, either on trade – which he had declared was the number one issue for his Asian tour – or on strengthening the US’s military position in the region.

The exception is that he can say he signed trade and investment deals with China worth $250bn – a very considerable sum. However, scratching the surface reveals that these deals are all in the form of Memoranda of Understanding, reflecting aspirations, future potential projects and expressions of interests rather than definite commitments. This is not to say that the Chinese are acting in bad faith and do not intend to meet at least some of what has been proposed – and even if only 25% came to fruition, $60plus billion is a lot of investment. But it does leave open what would happen to these deals if the US were to ratchet up the military pressure over North Korea or in the South China Sea?

As outlined above, it was when Trump reached Vietnam for the APEC summit that the pomp accompanying his Asian tour fell away and the emperor was seen to have no clothes. His speech to APEC was to all intents and purposes ignored. Perhaps as a result, or because the trip was almost over, Trump, whose tweets had been more measured than usual during his visit, returned to using Twitter to trade insults with North Korea and launch unexpected policy initiatives. But apart from provoking a North Korean death threat for describing Kim Jong-un as ‘short and fat’, even his tweets brought little interest.

This was most striking in the lack of any response to his tweeted and off-the-cuff suggestion that the US ‘mediate’ on the South China Sea disputes: ‘I’m a very good mediator’ he claimed. The silence with which this was greeted was in sharp contrast to the flurry of diplomacy, protests from China, remilitarisation and stepped up conflict that flowed from Hillary Clinton’s offer made in the same terms – in the same country – in 2010. That Clinton speech in Hanoi marked the launch of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, which led in particular to a heating up of conflict between the various claimants to islets in the South China Sea, which in turn was used to justify a sharply stepped up US naval presence in the Sea.

This time Trump’s audience simply shrugged and moved on. On the one hand this was partly because the experience of stepped up US intervention in the region after 2010 had not been positive. US involvement had led to disruptive tensions and military threats compared to the relative stability of the preceding period when the disagreements over territory in the South China Sea had been successfully managed bilaterally or under the auspices of ASEAN.

IMF projected growth rates for the key South China Sea economies – not just China – suggest they will massively outstrip growth in the US (and EU) over the next five years.[ii] Given that military conflict in the region is about the only thing that could disrupt this, there is no appetite among these countries for signing up to a US policy of ratchetting up tensions with China over disputes in the Sea.

But above all, it is because the countries of the region increasingly no longer feel obliged to answer when the USA calls or jump when it says ‘Attention!’

It is true that US still has a substantial military advantage over China, and is still accepted as key security guarantor by most countries in the region. But as these countries do not believe the Western hype that China is engaged in a dangerous expansionist policy in the region and do not feel under military threat from their neighbours, the US’s military might has limited clout in determining priorities. As former Philippines president Gloria Arroyo said during the ASEAN summit: ‘[In the 1980s] everybody thought China would become a competitor. Today, we see China is not a …competitor. It’s a collaborator, a donor and a market.’

By contrast with Trump’s blundering and bombast, China has shown an increased sureness of foot in the international arena, sidestepping Trump’s rhetorical excesses and relentlessly pursuing stable international relations, demonstrating subtlety and effectiveness in dealing with the series of tensions that have emerged in the last year as a result of the big changes in the White House.

On the one hand China has drawn clear ‘red lines’ which have been accepted – for example, in turning around Trump’s early suggestions that the US might break with ‘one China’ on relations with Taiwan. On the other, China has been prepared to meet the US ‘half-way’ on such issues as sanctions on North Korea, some liberalisation of trade, for example allowing the import of more US beef and the MOUs signed during Trump’s visit.

China’s success can be measured by a real retreat by Trump from his ultra-hostile starting point on relations with China. Personally Trump has appeared wrong-footed by China, overly keen to assert that he and Xi have a special relationship and that China is a ‘good friend’. During the trip Trump went further, taking the Western media aback by saying ‘I don’t blame China’ for ‘unfair’ trade relationships with the US, instead reproaching previous US administrations. And it is not just a matter of words. In the White House, extreme China hawks, like Peter Navarro, have been sidelined, while others, like Steve Bannon, have departed.

While this success is considerably down to China’s effective foreign policy responses, not just towards the US but also its Asian partners, Trump’s policies have isolated the US further. China’s success in building partnerships in Asia is because it is consistently putting forward solutions to complex regional problems that offer mutual benefit in securing stability for trade and economic development.

It is precisely on these decisive issues for the fast developing economies of Asia that Trump’s ‘America First’ protectionism is empty. Thus perhaps the most telling assessment of Trump’s Asia tour was the despairing The Washington Post headline: ‘This is how a superpower commits suicide’.

This article was first published on the blog New Cold War. Jude Woodward is the author of ‘The US vs China: Asia’s new Cold War’, Manchester University Press, 2017

[i] Donnen, S. ‘Globalisation marches on without Trump’, Financial Times, 6 November 2017

[ii] The cumulative IMF growth rate projections for 2016-22 for these countries are: Philippines 48%, China and Vietnam 44%, Indonesia 37%, Malaysia 34%, Hong Kong SAR 20%, Singapore 17%, Province Taiwan 13%, compared to the US and EU on 12% apiece. Source: IMF World Economic Outlook October 2007, calculations courtesy John Ross