In the days when being King of England was still a consequential job, monarchs periodically set out on a royal progress – a round of visits to the major towns of the realm – which were the occasion for increasingly lavish displays of pageantry and propaganda.
While US President Donald Trump was beginning his own five-nation progress in Tokyo, back on Nov. 6, Asia Sentinel wondered if he could carry it off in a way that evoked respect for his office and even for his august person. Could Trump behave like a diplomat? Could he, for 12 days, act like an adult?
Now we know. Donald Trump is a sucker for a snow job, and jeez Louise, do his Asian peers ever know how to lay one on. Especially Xi Jinping, who rolled out a double order of goose-stepping guards and pompon-waving teens, confided to Trump that he was the object of a “state visit plus-plus,” and sent the American president into a spasm of delight. “They say that in the history of people coming to China,” he told the reporters on Air Force One, “there’s been nothing like that. And I believe it.”
Reading the transcripts posted by Trump’s staff – seemingly every word uttered within earshot of a reporter – it’s evident that Trump believes that he’s unleashed some sort of personal chemistry on his peers, a flotilla of pheromones unavailable to his predecessor Barack Obama and certainly unimaginable were Hillary Clinton making the trip in Trump’s stead.
During his East Asia trip, President Trump made a couple of decent speeches, one to the South Korean legislature, and another at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, that were cobbled together by NSC staff and whoever’s still on duty at the US State Department. He didn’t stop there, however. As CNN aptly put it, Trump “basked in the thrall of making new friends.”
The Japanese prime minister, Trump confided, “came up to me just at the end [of the APEC meeting], and he said that since you left South Korea and Japan, that those two countries are now getting along much, much better.” Putin of Russia, also at the APEC meeting, “said he didn’t meddle [in US politics]…he did not do what they said he did. And, you know, there are those that say, if he did do it, he wouldn’t have gotten caught, all right? Which is a very interesting statement. But we have a – you know, we have a good feeling toward getting things done.”
The Chinese strongman, Xi Jinping, is “the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Some people say more powerful than Mao. With that being said, I really believe he’s a good person, he’s a good man, he wants to do right, he’s representing his people. He’s strong, he’s very strong. But you know, you look at some of what you saw was very impressive. It was very impressive.”
Mirabile dictu, Donald Trump believes that in a few days he’s charmed Japan and South Korea into unprecedented friendship, convinced China’s Xi to squeeze North Korea’s trade until Pyongyang squeaks, and put Russia’s Putin on the spot: you help us with North Korea and we can cut a deal on Ukraine, Syria, whatever it is that matters to Moscow.
Moving on to Vietnam, Trump freelanced that having such great chemistry with Xi Jinping, maybe he could mediate between China and Vietnam on South China Sea issues. “If I could help mediate or arbitrate,” he said he told President Quang, “please let me know. I’m a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator. I have done plenty of it from both sides. So if I can help you, let me know.”
It was, as Bill Hayton notes, one of those jaw-drop moments. “What may cause a few sleepless nights” in Hanoi, Hayton observes, “is whether Trump and China have made their own deal. Everyone is well aware that Trump’s current priority in Asia is the denuclearization of North Korea. They wonder what price Beijing may have extracted from Washington in order to increase the pressure on Pyongyang.” Something along the lines of what’s China’s is China’s inside that nine-dash line, and what’s Vietnam’s is negotiable, say?
Hanoi would have preferred a few choice words to the effect that the issues ought to be worked out in accordance with international law, which gives short shrift to Beijing’s grandiose claim of sovereignty over nearly all the South China Sea.
Perhaps the most startling Trumpism was the US president’s observation that the Beijing regime can hardly be faulted for taking advantage of American permissiveness in trade relations.
He was on a roll. As the trip ended, the US president’s takeaway was “I think one of my strong suits is going to be foreign affairs. . . . There’s nobody that I can think of that I don’t have a very good relationship with. “
Diplomats, even the raggle-taggle bunch left at the State Department after Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has cleaned house, as a rule deal in what’s possible. They aren’t so naive as to believe that Tokyo and Seoul will suddenly be the best of friends, or that Beijing will engage Washington as an honest broker in its quarrels with Hanoi. Nor do they expect either Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin will lean hard on North Korea unless Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are prepared to honor their bill for services.
In each meeting, Trump’s objectives were clear: Pyongyang should bury its bomb, and the rest of the East Asia dialogue partners should buy American weapons and other stuff. So that the message sunk in, a handful of pending contracts were mentioned at each stop. Trump said he’s ready to deal; and that, he explains, is what makes him different. We shall see in due course if he’s correct.
Taking their cue from the boss, White House spokesmen strayed not at all from contending that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a bad thing because it was negotiated by the Obama administration, a bunch that “had no clue,” and that China could hardly be faulted for taking advantage of US cluelessness.
Instead, the US “look[s] forward to achieving a bilateral trade agreement with partners who abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade – two very important words: fair and reciprocal. It hasn’t been that way for the United States almost at all. And we’re changing that, and we’re changing it rapidly.”
Conspicuously absent from page after page of “press availabilities” is a good explanation of why the US walked away from a multinational trade agreement that would, if were to be into effect, address the very ”unfairnesses” that Trump decried at every stop.
The US President is getting pounded in America’s mainstream press for going on an ego trip, and by subscribing to fantasies of a ‘special chemistry’ with Xi Jinping and other Asian leaders, sapping respect for US statesmanship and further eroding what used to be its greatest strength, an element of moral purpose. Does he care? To Donald Trump, that’s just ‘fake news.’
David Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel