Is there any Asian government looking forward to President Trump’s visit to Asia? With friends (if any) and foes alike baffled and worried about his next tweet or outburst, his friends seem to be a trifecta of deplorables: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who badly needs to take minds off his extrajudicial killing spree and squeeze the US with insinuations of ever closer ties with China, its invasion of Scarborough (Panatag) shoal notwithstanding.
His other chums are junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who in 2015 ended Thailand’s most recent elected government and replaced it with a thinly veiled dictatorsihp, and Najib Razak, the subject of the biggest kleptocracy investigation ever undertaken by the US department of Justice. Both visited the President in the White House. Duterte has yet to make the trip. Quite a crowd!
Such is Trump’s attention deficit disorder that it is understood that he won’t bother to stay around in Manila for the East Asia Summit, an event which grew out of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This body, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was as much the creation of the US during the Cold War and the Vietnam war, as driven by the then-fragile common identity of its original five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. Only with the end of those wars could Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar join.
ASEAN today may be in disarray politically, divided by China between those with and without conflicting maritime claims. Yet Trump’s absence during a symbolic anniversary is almost as much a demonstration of his isolationist mood as his earlier cancellation of America’s last major Asian initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Nor have Secretary of State Tillerson’s Asian visits done much to fill the gap in Trump’s knowledge and interest. His concerns in Asia, such as they are, have been dominated by North Korea and China, with some nod to India but scant interest in Southeast Asia despite it being such a focus of Chinese military expansion. Tillerson anyway evidently has limited influence over the President and has been as much preoccupied with trying to cut costs at the State Department as with diplomacy. He spouts management consultant jargon urging on his department “an evidence-based and data-driven process to enhance policy formulation and execution as well as optimize and realign our global footprint.”
The Trump visit is all about China and Japan, but mainly China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, recently strengthened by his election victory, will make all the right noises about the North Korea threat but his main aim must be to head off US protectionism and also to warn about China’s maritime ambitions. But the Tokyo visit is overshadowed by that with the newly-crowned Xi Jinping. Whether Trump’s extravagantly phrased congratulations to Xi will help on trade or nuclear issues seems unlikely. China’s agenda is not easily swayed by such trifles. Indeed they may make Beijing, still trying to figure out what to make of Trump, more wary.
They do know however that Trump is more concerned with appearance than substance. The Chinese also know that Trump admires strong leaders, however they got there and whatever they do. He thus wants to be pals with Xi and Duterte regardless of bigger issues. As for results, China hopes to buy time using Trump’s need for a trophy to bring home. Thus lashings of Chinese money will be directed to worthy infrastructure projects in politically important areas of the US. China can easily wear a few more anti-dumping imposts by the US such as just applied to aluminium products, and noises about protecting US technology firms from takeover by Chinese, provided radical anti-trade measures are avoided. Beijing will also point to Xi’s Party Congress speech as evidence of continuing economic reform and in particular the promise of national treatment for foreign enterprises. They are supposed to get that already and the remark means little in practice. But the show must go on.
The Chinese, like much of the rest of Asia, have good reason to be worried if the US effort continues to tear up the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), from which sprang other regional deals. So far Canada and Mexico have stood together and brushed off Trump’s provocations. But whether China and Japan can present a common front on trade is another matter when strategic rivalries are so clear.
Abe will make a big deal of standing together against North Korea and the need for intensifying military preparedness. But avoiding trade conflict must be his primary aim. As it is, the North Korean “threat” can be seen both to justify his proposed amendment of Japan’s constitution and to draw more US forces into the region. This is a major discomfort for China but Beijjing has itself largely to blame. It will also go well in most of Southeast Asia, which has been feeling exposed by Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. Even Duterte’s anti-US emotions are being blunted by the realities both of domestic sentiment and military and elite interests.
The US military and Defense Secretary Mattis are natural opponents of isolation and Pyongyang has given them cause to argue that “making America great again” doesn’t mean abandoning fifty years of using open trade as a carrot for other nations, with the military stick reserved for recalcitrants.
In short, the Asian trip could be a defining moment in determining whether or not Trump the would-beisolationist is brought back into line with mainstream foreign and defense policy makers. More likely however it will be an anti-climax, with a jet-lagged Trump on his best behaviour and not upsetting a well- choreographed series of photo opportunities and platitudes before hastening home to the comfort of his own golf course.