The Policy Significance of Trump’s Asia Tour

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy

The Policy Significance of Trump’s Asia Tour

Unpacking Washington’s Asia-Pacific policy following the president’s trip

The Policy Significance of Trump’s Asia Tour
Credit: The White House

In 1793, Lord Macartney traveled to Beijing on behalf of the British Empire with the goal of opening Chinese trade. Famously, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty denied the commercial requests made on behalf of King George III; instead, the Chinese leader, oblivious to the shifting geopolitical landscape, treated the world’s most important rising power as a tributary to the Celestial Court. The emperor could not foresee the forthcoming Western ascendancy and the resulting “Century of Humiliation.”

In contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump, leader of the world’s most dominant nation, may feel flattered with the “state visit-plus” reception he received in Beijing. Trump is the first foreign leader since the founding of modern China in 1949 to have an official dinner within the Forbidden City, the historic palace in Beijing that housed Chinese emperors for almost half a millennium. Following his consolidation of power during 19th Party Congress and with the rise of China on the world stage, President Xi Jingping exuded a notable confidence in extending this unprecedented reception to the U.S. president, quite unlike the experience of Trump’s predecessor.

Of course, the efficacy of international diplomacy is not measured in the length of the red carpet. Beyond the pomp and protocol, Trump’s Asian tour was aimed at meeting three concrete foreign policy goals: (1) strengthening U.S.-led efforts to deter and isolate North Korea and its growing nuclear threat; (2) laying the foundation for new bilateral trade relationships that reduce the U.S. trade deficit; and (3) rolling out the administration’s vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Given record low approval ratings, discord with Congressional Republicans, and ongoing Russia-related investigations, the foreign trip also provided an opportunity for the president to temporarily escape domestic challenges and establish a fresh political narrative.

Assessing the president’s progress on each of these fronts will take time. However, it is not too early to unpack key U.S. policy initiatives following Trump’s marathon trip through Asia.

Stranger Things with North Korea

The most critical national security task of Trump’s trip was strengthening U.S.-led efforts to stop Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program and, ultimately, denuclearize North Korea.

Trump sought to deliver a clear message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In his remarks before South Korea’s National Assembly, the president underscored the threat of military force: “History is filled with discarded regimes that have foolishly tested America’s resolve.” He noted that the U.S. had stationed three aircraft carriers nearby “loaded to the maximum with magnificent F-35 and F-18 fighter jets” in addition to appropriately positioned nuclear submarines. Subsequently, to buttress Trump’s warning, the battle carrier groups of the USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz carried out joint naval exercises adjacent to the Korean peninsula. Each carrier strike group holds strike fighter squadrons and a complement of maritime support, including a cruiser, guided missile destroyers, and a nuclear attack submarine. U.S. B-1 bombers also made an appearance. It was an extraordinary display of force. Perhaps Trump was cognizant of the most consequential act in U.S. relations with the Asia-Pacific: Commodore Matthew Perry’s conspicuously display of American warfighting capacity in Tokyo harbor in 1853.

The president also sought to strengthen multilateral diplomacy to isolate Pyongyang. For example, the aforementioned military maneuvers advanced trilateral cooperation among Japan, U.S., and South Korea, which Trump reaffirmed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his time in Tokyo. During his trip, Trump also consistently called upon all “responsible” nations to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions, downgrade diplomatic relations with the regime, and sever all ties of trade and technology. Whether his targeted audience – namely Russia and China – will follow through is a separate question.

There is already tension on this issue.

As I noted during an interview with CGTN America, Security Council Resolution 2375 and Resolution 2371, which targeted North Korea’s access to energy resources, were not as extensive as Washington desired due to the veto threats from Moscow and Beijing. China and Russia have expressed opposition to any U.S. policy that results in a regime change, regime collapse, accelerated reunification or military deployment north of the thirty-eighth parallel (the so-called “four nos”). No doubt this position and the perseverance of Kim Jong-un have frustrated Trump–a frustration that is often expressed in bellicose terms, like his well-known “Rocket Man” outburst at the United Nations General Assembly.

Indeed, an odd consistency of sorts has developed in Trump’s approach to Kim: an exchange of playground taunts that would otherwise be amusing but for the threat of nuclear war. In the most recent iteration, responding to Kim’s latest salvo, Trump tweeted from Vietnam: “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 – and maybe someday that will happen!” Perhaps only a dotard could forget the president’s verbal assaults of his Republican challengers during the 2016 primary elections, some of whom are now supporting his agenda in Washington. Can Trump and Kim similarly establish a working relationship based on reciprocal insults? As the president acknowledged, with the North Korean leader, stranger things can happen.

Zeroing in on the U.S. Trade Deficit

Consistent with his campaign promise, on his first day in office, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the “next generation” regional free trade agreement that was the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s Asia policy. As I noted in these pages, the risk with Trump’s veto of the TPP was that there was no ready U.S. policy substitute. During his tour, Trump provided his answer: the establishment of new bilateral trade relationships in Asia that reduce the U.S. trade deficit. As the president explained at the APEC CEO Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam:

“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.” 

Additionally, he vowed to enforce World Trade Organization (WTO) principles on protecting intellectual property and ensuring fair and equal market access. This includes responding to countries that engage in product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation, and predatory industrial policies.

To demonstrate the need for change, at each stop, the president highlighted America’s trade deficit with the respective host country. With China, for example, the U.S. goods and services trade deficit was $309.6 billion in 2016. For this imbalance, Trump laid the blame at the feet of his presidential predecessors, as opposed to the foreign states, which, in his view, were effectively pursuing their self-interest. At the same time, the president attacked countries, such as China, that he said engaged in unfair trade practices in violation of world trade rules. The Trump administration has launched investigations – such as so-called “Section 232” investigations by the U.S. Department of Commerce – targeting Chinese exports. If the U.S. were to impose countervailing duties on Chinese products, some observers fear a trade war.

Given the opportunity for reciprocal action, it is not evident that Trump’s rhetoric and bilateral approach will resolve structural issues regarding U.S. trade. As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted, in the grand scheme of America’s large trade deficits in Asia with countries like China, “the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small.” As a tacit admission to the limitations of this approach, in Seoul, by omission, the Trump administration effectively walked backed prior threats to nullify the South Korea- U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

The Trump administration may also find that a piecemeal approach to trade with Asia provides no greater leverage for U.S. exports or strategic benefit for broader U.S. interests. Indeed, one of the characteristics and advantages of being a superpower is the ability to forge a multilateral consensus – to converge competing international demands – in a framework that furthers the national interest. Chinese-led initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which accounts for 40 percent of global trade and covers three billion people across the region, and the Belts and Roads Initiative, which has a similar international footprint, demonstrates this type of ambition for global influence.

Additionally, achieving an absolute balance in trade with each of America’s trading partners presents a false measurement of progress. As Adam Smith and David Ricardo observed, international trade creates mutual benefit by leveraging advantages, differentiation, and specialization among trading partners. By focusing on a zero trade deficit, the Trump administration may lose sight of the broader benefits of trade and the global nature of modern supply chains. A more effective course would entail strengthening the advantages of the United States, such as its skilled workforce, innovative technology, and creative energy.

In one sense, during his trip to Asia, Trump followed this track by pushing large U.S. arms deals. For instance, in Japan, Trump promoted the sale of ballistic missile defense technology; in South Korea, he touted the acquisition of advanced military equipment, from fighter aircraft to reconnaissance systems; in Vietnam, he reportedly asked Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc why his country was not buying more American military equipment. This pattern follows a precedent established during Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May when his administration announced $110 billion worth of purchases from U.S. defense companies. In search of commercial deliverables, the president has turned to the United States’ unparalleled technological advantage in waging war.

Old and New Dreams in the Indo-Pacific Region

Beyond the specifics of North Korea and trade policy, Trump introduced a new American vision on a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” – otherwise described by the president as an “Indo-Pacific dream.” As unveiled during his tour of Asia, this regional concept contains both old and new elements in U.S. foreign policy.

In terms of carryover from the Obama administration, for example, Trump reaffirmed the strategic importance to the international community of “free and open access” to the South China Sea, the importance of “unimpeded” lawful commerce, the need to respect freedom of navigation and over-flight, and other lawful uses of the sea. Similarly, Trump confirmed U.S. treaty commitments to Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and re-affirmed the relatively new partnership with Vietnam. He also continued Washington’s high-level dialogue with Beijing on a range of pressing global challenges from cybersecurity to nuclear proliferation. Specific policies like U.S. support for Japan’s permanent seat on the Security Council went unchanged. He also largely continued standard U.S. pronouncements on principles such as upholding the rule of law.

The novel character of Trump’s foreign policy towards Asia is found in his rhetoric, specifically concerning sovereignty, nationalism, and “high-standard” rules of governance. For example, at the APEC CEO Summit, the president embraced a “world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, thriving in peace and commerce with others,” – an Indo-Pacific region consisting of “a beautiful constellation of nations, each its own bright star, satellites to none.” The unspoken message may be that the United States will support individual Asian states against the increasingly gravitational pull of China, a tacit rejection of any tribute system orbiting Beijing.

At the same time, in respecting the sovereignty and independence of Asian states, the president rejected previous prescriptive normative approach from Washington. Trump made a similar commitment at his speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he promised that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others.” There is a fear that Trump’s attitude could be interpreted by authoritarian and autocratic regimes as a green light to ignore democratic norms and violate human rights. In other words, “America first” may mean that the United States is no longer first in upholding the liberal world order.

Still riding the wave of nationalism that swept him into the White House, at each stop, Trump celebrated a future of “patriotism, prosperity, and pride.” For instance, the president was careful to frame the respective achievements of each host country as matters of national wonder, achievements born from freedom, or at least the free market with regard to China. He did so most dramatically in Seoul, when he distinguished the “miracle” of South Korean freedom against the “tyranny” of North Korea, the thirty-eight parallel representing the “thin line of civilization.”

Trump also began to articulate a concept of “high-standard” or “high-quality” U.S.-sponsored rules or programs, perhaps providing a contrast against presumably “lower” Chinese-led efforts. In Tokyo, for instance, the president expressed support for “high-standard rules of governance” and “high-quality United States-Japanese infrastructure investment alternatives” in the Indo-Pacific region. Later, in Vietnam, he called on the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to direct their efforts toward “high-quality infrastructure investment” that promotes economic growth. Are these remarks a subtle dig at “white elephant” projects under the Belts and Roads Initiative and the RCEP, which does not include stronger protections for labor, intellectual property, or foreign investment? These remarks were likely intended for multiple audiences.

One target audience during Trump’s overseas trip was U.S. voters and his political base in particular. The president’s Indo-Pacific vision echoed traditional conservative domestic themes like private sector-led initiatives, self-reliance, and individual enterprise. Almost without fail, at each visit Trump announced his claimed list of accomplishments in year one: a 3.2 percent growth rate, record unemployment, an all-time high stock market, and the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, Trump should receive credit for remaining consistent to his campaign promise to revisit U.S. trade relations and directly confront the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear program, even if his style and approach are subject to scrutiny.

Trump has proven himself an adroit if unorthodox communicator. However, the president’s message in Asia may have had difficulty spanning the Pacific, as Trump continued to suffer political setbacks on the domestic front, most evidently with Democratic electoral victories in Virginia and New Jersey on Election Day, November 7. The “off-year” gubernatorial races traditionally foretell the midterm Congressional elections scheduled in 2018. If the Republicans lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives next year, then we can expect a fresh round of Congressional investigations and hearings to supplement the ongoing Russia-related probes by special prosecutor Robert Mueller and others. Following the election results, House Democrats have already introduced articles of impeachment against the president.

As such, Trump’s five-nation tour likely provided a much-needed reprieve from the “Swamp” in Washington, D.C. He could leave certain baggage at home. Whether he can advance his objectives vis-à-vis North Korea, U.S. trade deficits, and a new vision for the Indo-Pacific region remains to be seen. Following the president’s visit, we can at least unpack and begin to measure his foreign policy in Asia.

Roncevert Ganan Almond is a Partner and Vice-President at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has counseled government authorities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on issues of international law. He served as an aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, but is not currently affiliated with any campaign. The views expressed here are strictly his own.