Expectations are never high for Donald Trump on foreign trips, but some are calling his Asian tour better than expected which isn’t saying much. It’s hard to really pin down what makes it good. For the most part though, Trump managed to not offend the people he visited and was able to get around with barely any tensions being raised at all. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. It’s certainly a better guide to measuring success than claiming that merchandise sales went up during the trip by $300 billion without providing details.
There were two big problems that emerged. The first was that Trump’s trip was overshadowed by events at home. From the mass shooting at Sutherland Springs to sexual misconduct by Roy Moore, not to mention Democrats taking Virginia and New Jersey, Trump was unable to grab the headlines and ratings he wanted. The second problem is a much more pressing issue for America’s allies in Asia: a lack of confidence in Trump and uncertainty over his Asia-Pacific policy.
America has spent millions of dollar and several decades building alliances and relationships in Asia and the Pacific. By cultivating friendships and building links between nations like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, America can help to counterbalance China’s growing economic and military might. With Xi Jinping securely in place and his power unchallenged within, China has never been more united-nor has it been even more dangerous.
China is a strange puzzle. It is America’s most prosperous trading partner and also their greatest international rival along with Russia. It is a mysterious and unpredictable country, a country proud of its ancient heritage and eager to prove themselves to a watching world. It has a hand in North Korea and yet it is also unable to do much damage or pull many levers over Kim Jong-un.
Donald Trump is also a wild card in the game of international politics. His speeches against North Korea have been well received, but his rhetoric of ‘America First’, his attack on Asian allies ‘cheating’ America with unfair trade deals and his pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership all have nations worried and confused. They see America’s president as someone who can assuage their concerns over China, not reinforce them.
Trump’s decision to leave early and send Rex Tillerson to an important East Asia Summit is also troubling to many who hoped to see Trump standing with his East Asian allies. By leaving early, Trump is signaling that he isn’t too concerned with affairs in the Pacific. He might well be, but his early departure will speak louder than all of his words and Tweets.
Trump is turning his back on America’s allies. When he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the leaders of France, Germany and the UK vowed to try and keep the deal alive. Now, many Pacific Rim countries are hoping to revive the TPP deal without America’s involvement. The fact that TPP was originally designed to counter China’s economic strength makes the irony even thicker. Like the Iran nuclear deal, America’s non-involvement leaves both deals in doubt.
China is watching Trump very carefully and there is no doubt that they will take advantage of America’s isolation. Europe is learning to ignore Trump and they sense, or hope, that the other Asian leaders will do the same. They have always regarded America as an outside power, a destabilizing factor, and an interfering imperialist power. With Trump, they see a golden opportunity to expand their influence and push back against decades of US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Trump has left Asia confused and wary of the leader of the greatest ally. His agenda has been largely ignored and the benefits of the Asian alliances contradicts by Trump’s own words as actions. He praises China, then criticizes it. He talks of valuing Asian partners and then berating them for unfair trade practices against the USA. The unpredictability that he called a virtue leaves much to be desired. After all, how do you make deals with a man who changes his mind every week? China might not be a trustworthy neighbor but at least their policy is constant, if somewhat aggressive and unsettling.
Trump might hail his trip a success, but the real winner is China and those who wish to see China take center stage in world affairs. It no longer matters who replaces Trump. America has lost crucial ground to its rivals and can no longer be trusted by its own allies. Pulling out of trade deals and climate change accords leave America isolated and, in the long run, damages both the economy and trust.
Trump has left questions without answers in his wake. With his departure, America takes another step off the world stage. No wonder Xi Jinping looked so happy!