President Donald Trump has returned from his 12-day trip to Asia, proclaiming it historic. Indeed, it was historic, but not for the reasons he listed.
Instead, 52 years after US Marines landed on the beach of Da Nang, which launched the US’sy’s fateful intervention in Vietnam, the president visited the same place – not to commemorate America’s sacrifice but to symbolically highlight the futility of that venture.
Washington policymakers intervened in Vietnam during the 1960s to prevent what they perceived as the domination of Communist China. This was a misreading of history that nonetheless signaled US participation in Asia that has never ended. Now, by frivolously relinquishing US leadership in the region, Trump has finally lost the Vietnam War – that war against communism – to China.
Trump claimed that one of his missions during his visit was to “advance American interests” in Asia. In the true Orwellian style that marks his presidency, he achieved precisely the opposite.
The irony and symbolism were hard to miss with the event in Da Nang, where Vietnam hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The APEC forum, since it began in 1989, has been a major US initiative to restore its leadership in the region after the disastrous loss of influence in post-Vietnam War Asia. But Trump mounted the podium to essentially deplore the uselessness of multilateral trade organizations like APEC and leave the stage to China’s newest strongman President Xi Jinping. After crowing about the virtue of his America First approach, Trump devoted nearly a third of his address to whining about unfair treatment meted out by the World Trade Organization – the very organization the United States helped erect, one that has stabilized global trade and delivered unprecedented prosperity to the world.
After telling the stunned audience that the United States would henceforth only pursue bilateral trade agreements, Trump left the hall. Xi then strutted in to literally take over the leadership role Trump left on the floor. Unlike Trump, who urged every country to follow in his footsteps and care only about their own interests, Xi spoke from the podium as magnanimous world statesman.
His speech strategically included words like globalization (7 times), international (11), inclusive (10), share and cooperation (11 each) and global (33). He also spoke about improving the environment and tackling climate change – themes that Trump scrupulously shunned. True to their authoritarian approach, though, both men avoided the term “human rights.”
Of course, Trump’s abdication of leadership started immediately after he assumed office – withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement negotiated by two previous administrations, and then from the Paris climate pact, leaving the United States as the sole country in the world excluded from the agreement. He has repeatedly denounced multilateral trade agreements as harmful to American interests. But nothing could be more dramatic than for Trump to stand before the summit of APEC leaders – an organization inspired by Washington – and proclaim that multilateral trade deals are relics of the past for the United States.
With a lofty approach fit for one who has just taken control over global leadership, Xi told the assembly: “We should uphold multilateralism, pursue shared growth through consultation and collaboration, forge closer partnerships, and build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
Many of Xi’s high-minded words are hollow. From trade manipulation to intellectual property theft – by forcing foreign companies to share their technology, regarding the common waterway of the South China Sea as a Chinese lake and transforming China’s internet into an alternative universe blocked by the Great Fire Wall – the Chinese leader did not proclaim the values that go with world leadership.
But his pledge to pursue an equitable and inclusive policy earned him the applause of Asian leaders shell-shocked by Trump’s abdication of US trade leadership. Such abdication was even more stunning as the objections Trump raised about bad trade practice by partners, like state subsidies and theft of intellectual property, are the very aspects addressed by TPP.
He abandoned that hard-fought agreement, negotiated since 2008, which was designed to lay out the rules of trade rather than leave these for China to dictate. Former US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter once compared TPP with an aircraft carrier in providing security to the region.
Trump obtained a symbolic victory for the United States with an agreement to allow an American aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam – incremental, though, as Vietnam expresses concern over Chinese aggressiveness and gradually opens its door to US naval vessels. This symbolic move and the sale of coastguard vessels to Vietnam already negotiated under the Obama administration cannot compensate for the prestige and leadership lost by Trump with his flippant abandonment of multilateral trade, especially the TPP. Vietnam’s authoritarian regime had made great concessions in order to enjoy the benefits of TPP, and it is now sorely disappointed.
In his earlier stop in Beijing, Trump was clearly awed by the pomp and ceremony of a state dinner at the glittering Great Hall of the People. He heaped praise on Xi, calling him, perhaps tongue in cheek, a king. Trump boasted about being treated to a two-hour banquet and loving every minute. Overwhelmed by Chinese hospitality, Trump went on to express his understanding of predatory Chinese behavior in trade as natural behavior for a nationalist government – undercutting his sharp criticism for unnamed countries while reading from a prepared text at APEC summit in Da Nang.
Trump was 19 in 1965 and perhaps should not be expected to remember that tens of thousands of American troops had been dispatched to save South Vietnam from Chinese communist hegemony. The strategic reason advanced by US administrations was to prevent Vietnam from becoming a domino falling to the so-called “Red Chinese” juggernaut. In 1964, then-US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said, “Hanoi’s victory [in South Vietnam] would be a first step toward eventual Chinese hegemony over the two Vietnams and Southeast Asia and toward exploitation of the new [wars of liberation] strategy in other parts of the world.”
The US mission to prevent Vietnam and the rest of Asia from falling into the hands of the Chinese communist regime was graphically represented in the shield-and-shoulder patch of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam that US soldiers wore when sent to Vietnam – a silver American sword penetrating a red field and a stylized Great Wall of China.
Considering the North Vietnamese patsies for the Chinese, as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations did, is a profound misreading of history. Vietnamese nationalism is defined by the country’s millennial-long struggle against Chinese rulers from the beginning of the Christian era, immortalized by the Trung sisters fighting Chinese invaders on elephants, heroines still revered in Vietnam. It took more than a decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975 for the Americans to appreciate Vietnam’s historic role as a barrier to Chinese expansionism.
Facing the renewal of its millennial-long Chinese threat, Hanoi has now turned to the United States. But in an irony of history, an American president – with a shallow and whiny speech in Da Nang – has handed over not only leadership of the region but also the entire global economy to China’s autocratic ruler.
Nayan Chanda is the founding editor of YaleGlobal Online. A long-time correspondent for, and later editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, he stayed on in Indochina to report after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and later wrote Brother Enemy: The War After the War. He is also the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press, 2007). He wrote this for YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.