Trump’s task of balancing diplomacy in Asia with interests of his voters is no easy task
In his visit to East Asia, President Trump sought to make progress toward five big objectives. Those included reconfigure trade relations, especially with China; tackling North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posture; laying the foundations for a comprehensive Asia policy; reinforcing political-military alliances, particularly with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines; and dealing with China’s economic and military ascendancy;
Trump had a cordial meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. He even gave credit to the PRC leadership for taking advantage of “previous U.S. administrations’ weakness” on trade.
However, the president came across as a supplicant. And the ‘asks’ were huge: North Korean nuclear disarmament and a considerable improvement in trade balance. As for the latter, a number of investment deals were announced between U.S. and Chinese companies worth 250 billion USD, though many of them unbinding. The former will play out in the days and months to come.
Nevertheless, soon after leaving China, Trump warned against international trade rules violations (implying PRC as a culprit). This suggests determination to go after U.S.-China trade and investment imbalances. These currently include a gaping $347 billion trade deficit, non-tariff trade barriers, and intentional, chronic and massive violations of U.S. intellectual property.
Upholding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but how?
Improvement of trade terms was on Trump’s and other leaders’ minds when they discussed Trans-Pacific Leadership (TPP) at the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) annual meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam. The challenge of implementing TPP is that its terms were negotiated with the prospect of easier access to U.S. markets.
After Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, leaders may want to reconsider concessions and tone down commitments. The agreement on the revival of the deal has been reached “in principle”, but Canadian PM Trudeau has failed to show up in time for the important meeting, and parts of the deal may be suspended or up for renegotiation, though labour and environmental standards may remain intact for now.
Trump-Putin no-meeting at the APEC summit
The meeting was cancelled — leaving room for speculation whether this is due to scheduling or political conflict. There were a few cordial exchanges, after which Mr Trump said that he would no longer raise the issue of the Russian intervention in the U.S. elections. He said that Putin vehemently denied it — ex-KGB officers usually do when caught red handed — and he, Trump, won’t raise it again. The problem is, the U.S. Congress doesn’t believe Putin and has imposed severe sanctions on a number of Russian companies and individuals.
Side meetings usually are symbolic gestures; therefore, no major progress could have been expected in the first place. However, the lack of symbolic gestures between Russia and the U.S. could also be attributed to real-life downturn in relations.
Facing the rogue: Trump-Duterte meeting at the APEC summit
Along the same lines, the meeting of presidents of the U.S. and Philippines can be viewed as symbolic.
However, in terms of foreign policy, it could be even more consequential due to these facts:
- President Rodrigo Duterte directed and allowed massive human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings of alleged drug lords and others, including by squads and hired assassins;
- The Filipino leader is severely hurting his country’s relations with the U.S. and E.U. as he seems to be increasingly turning his country towards Russia and the PRC — despite grave territorial disputes with Beijing in a vastly important area, the South China Sea.
When competing visions of the future order collide
Trump finds himself in a dilemma with China similar to that of the North Korea, but on an immeasurably bigger scale. The West’s “strategic patience” (i.e. allowing lucrative trade and investment with the communist power, expecting that wealth accumulation will eventually turn the country into a modern democracy) seems to be failing. Its leadership has managed to remain in control, while preserving power, and shoring up massive private wealth.
By now, the PRC has become the second largest power in the world, underpinning the global — and U.S. — economy. It is in the processes of catching up and overtaking the U.S., and is bigger than every individual European economy, or even the three largest European economies combined. Its growing assertiveness and unwillingness to play by the rules economically and politically represents a vast challenge to the U.S.-led global democratic order.
Trump’s visit to Asia is, therefore, is just an act in the prolonged drama of a strategic competition between the West’s democracy and rule of law challenged by China’s way of thinking, now epitomized as Xi’s Thought. That paradigm, emphasizing stability, harmony, and rule by law. At the same time, Trump has to not only pander to his home base of blue collar, predominantly rust belt voters, with their anti-China bias, but also appeal to his donors’ business interests. Whether he is going to achieve America’s goals will depend not just on him, but also on good will and cooperation of the leadership in the Forbidden City.
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is the director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS). He is also the founding principal of International Market Analysis Ltd, a Washington advisory firm, and a non-resident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council. Máté Mátyás is a junior fellow of the Hungarian American Coalition.