Asia experts give Trump's 12-day tour mixed reviews

U.S. President Donald Trump waves goodbye as he enters Air Force One after participating in the East Asia Summit, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Trump finished a five country trip through Asia visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he was “very proud” of the progress made on security and trade issues during his 12-day trek through Asia, but experts on the region do not share his unequivocal assessment that the trip was a diplomatic success.

Trump wrapped up his journey in the Philippines, meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte and attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He abruptly left Manila Tuesday without participating in a delayed session of the East Asia Summit.

Earlier stops on Trump’s Asian tour included Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam. He was greeted by his hosts with celebrations, feasts, parades, and praise, leading him to proclaim, “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received.”

Trump told reporters on Air Force One Tuesday that he believes he succeeded in building relationships with Asian leaders and securing business agreements.

“Very proud of it, from a standpoint of security and safety, military, very proud,” he said. “And trade, you will see numbers that you won’t believe over the years. Over a period of years, they will be treating us much differently than they have in the past.”

Speaking to “Full Measure” host Sharyl Attkisson before he left, Trump had said he was hopeful that steps would be taken toward resolving the conflict with North Korea.

“I really do hope that something is going to be worked out,” he told Attkisson. “We'll see what happens. I do believe that China where I'm going very soon and President Xi has been working. I really feel this. He's been working very hard to see if he can do something but we're going to see.”

However, Trump was vague about what exactly he intended to do to reduce the threat posed by Kim Jong Un.

“I mean, we're going to see what happens,” he said. “I can tell you that there's not going to be something bad happening in terms of what we're going to do or maybe what they're going to do. But I can tell you that we are a very, very strong nation getting stronger all the time, not only our economy but our military.”

U.S. officials had girded for a show of force from Pyongyang while the president was in the region, but the regime did little more than issue belligerent statements to counter Trump’s threats. Trump, meanwhile, delivered a tough but measured speech in South Korea warning Kim not to test him, and he took to Twitter to suggest the North Korean leader is “short and fat.”

According to Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Trump appears to have largely preserved the status quo on the issue.

“As you move from China to the south and to the west…the concern over the nuclearization of North Korea in the countries that you go through becomes less and less,” he said. “The key is China and he failed, in my opinion, to significantly alter the calculus that President Xi Jinping brings to bear on North Korea.”

According to Jessica Trisko Darden, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, Japan and South Korea are already firmly committed to a denuclearized North Korea, but Trump may still have more work to do to get a stronger commitment out of China.

“We saw a pretty strong speech regarding that issue,” she said. “Whether that will translate into more cooperation, I think only time will tell.”

Whether Trump’s trip qualifies as a victory depends largely on what standard it is assessed against. Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, called it a “measured success.”

“The bar had been set decidedly low, with all eyes on the lookout for complete chaos or, at minimum, a major diplomatic faux pas,” he said. “Neither was in evidence. Instead Trump’s composure, effective briefings by National Security Council staff, and careful planning by Trump’s hosts combined to produce a positive – and very important to Trump –telegenic first foray into Asia.”

Asian leaders appear to have learned how to impress Trump from the pageantry of his visit to Saudi Arabia. Emmerson suggested the efforts to cater to the president’s ego left him convinced the journey was more productive than it was.

“Because he personalizes foreign policy, because ultimately it’s all about himself, the personal relationships…contributed to his impression, false in my judgment, that he had made a real impact and everybody was getting along,” he said.

Just completing the trip without disaster may have been enough to calm the nerves of some allies troubled by Trump’s isolationist rhetoric.

“By sticking with the grueling 5-country, 12-day trip and participating in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Trump reassured countries in the region that the U.S. remains engaged,” said Anubhav Gupta, assistant director of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

However, he also noted a lack of concrete concessions and tangible results from the president’s meetings with foreign leaders, suggesting the trip was “heavier on pomp than on policy progress.”

Trisko Darden believes Trump made some headway on his trade priorities.

“I think on balance the trip achieved success in the areas where the president had previously outlined a strong agenda,” she said. “He did a good job of expanding U.S. business relationships in Asia and clearly spoke with a lot of world leaders regarding trade and the trade deficit the U.S. holds with those countries.”

A forceful speech on trade at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit emphasized the virtues of Trump’s “America First” agenda. Throughout the trip, he delivered a clear message that the U.S. will prioritize its own interests in trade agreements and seek bilateral agreements with individual governments instead of multilateral pacts other presidents have pursued.

“What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible,” he told an audience of South Korean CEOs. “Instead, we will deal on a basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit. We will respect your independence and your sovereignty. We want you to be strong, prosperous, and self-reliant, rooted in your history, and branching out toward the future.”

Trump’s unabashed nationalism, and his insistence that other countries should behave similarly, was met with mixed reactions in Asia.

“I think that’s why he has such a great relationship with Shinzo Abe…. It clearly also troubles other leaders,” Trisko Darden said.

Although Trump has boasted about withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a fulfillment of a campaign promise, the other 11 nations that participated in that deal reached a new agreement during the APEC summit without the U.S., and none expressed much appetite for negotiating their own deals with the Trump administration.

“It seemed to me almost the ultimate insult to Trump’s transactionalism that the TPP 11 met in Danang at the same time that he was there,” Emmerson said.

At the end of the trip, Trump told reporters deals had been secured worth at least $300 billion and “I think that number is going to be quadrupled very quickly.”

About $250 billion worth of specific agreements have been reported, including an $83.7 billion deal for a Chinese corporation to invest in shale gas and chemical manufacturing in West Virginia and a $43 billion natural gas pact between a Chinese state oil firm and an Alaskan energy company. Trump also claimed Vietnam has reached a $12 billion deal with Boeing.

Critics have questioned Trump’s numbers, noting that some of the agreements announced were non-binding and others involved commitments that had previously been planned.

“My suspicion is that many of them either are already on the table and that some of them are really memoranda of understanding,” Emmerson said. “To infer hard cash investments, decisions to buy American products, it seems naive to do that.”

Trump has also taken some heat for not publicly challenging authoritarians like Xi and Duterte on their human rights records. Officials say he pressed some issues in private, but Gupta said there may have been a missed opportunity in showering strongmen with public praise untampered by criticism.

“The bully pulpit of the U.S. presidency has been used effectively in the past to nudge or shame countries to cut down on human rights abuses,” he said. “If it is serious about supporting democracy and human rights, the United States should not abandon that tool.”

Some experts fear that by embracing his own brand of nationalism, Trump is withdrawing from the world and ceding leadership in Asia to China.

“The Chinese leadership played President Trump like a fiddle, catering to his insatiable ego and substituting pomp and circumstance for substance,” wrote former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday.

Rice also faulted Trump for his “lighthearted embrace” of Duterte and his “hubristic offer” to mediate the territorial conflict in the South China Sea.

Cavanaugh is currently in London, and he has heard a similar assessment there.

“The general sentiment here appears to be that Trump was played and this trip marks the continued advance of Chinese power in the Pacific,” he said.

Emmerson lamented a failure by Trump to offer a clear strategic vision for Asia during this visit, but he emphasized that the president could easily change course down the line if he finds interest in bilateral trade remains tepid and U.S. power continues to diminish.

“Because Trump is not particularly ideological,” he said, “it is conceivable that U.S. foreign policy toward Southeast Asia in a year could be very different…. There may be a shift by this time next year if there is a realization that the U.S. is making China great again and perhaps making Japan great again.”

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