BY BRANDON WEICHERT
Last November marked President Donald J. Trump’s historic trip to Asia. Upon his return, the president decreed that it was the most successful diplomatic trip of any president to Asia. To be fair, the president should receive plaudits for his work in rehabilitating America’s relationship with the Philippines, but there were several critical issues that were simply left open. As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group noted recently, there was “virtually zero progress on any issue that matters to the Americans,” asserting that such lack of movement was “ultimately, the biggest win for China.” Now, Bremmer is a noted critic of the president. But, unfortunately, Bremmer’s assessment is mostly correct—if one is only concerned with the near-term.
In the medium-to-long-term, however, things might change, assuming the president and his advisers keep Asia at the top of their foreign policy agenda which would be a stark change from the previous two administrations. As Trump Administration officials stated, “the president made a strategic decision to win over the [various Asian] leaders by playing nice.” Such a maneuver is quite characteristic to Trump’s true nature. While the president’s public persona is one of bombast, people who have done business and who know him personally, claim that the outlandish figure who tweets at early hours in the morning (and attacks his detractors) is not the full measure of the man. In fact, one can easily infer that the president must be able to work amicably with a host of different personalities due to numerous business relationships he had to nurture throughout the years.
Trump in reality can be very diplomatic and that is exactly how he appeared on his Asian trip. While detractors like Ely Ratner who was principal adviser to former Vice-President Joe Biden on Asia claim that Trump’s behavior in Asia left “the region confused about the direction of U.S. policy,” Trump’s visit in fact was part of a longer-term mission to rehabilitate American credibility and presence in Asia. On that note, the region has become highly competitive and has been left largely ignored by U.S. foreign policymakers for years. The United States may remain the most powerful country in the world, however, it is no longer the only one. We live in an increasingly multipolar world and Washington should maintain constant commitment to Asia.
Unfortunately, after 30 years of missteps, shortightedness, and downright stupidity, America continues to appear as a power in decline to much of the rest of the world. Compare this to the perception of China, which seems to become ascendant. This is the world’s perception, even though the United States still retains the largest economy in the world, has the only modern military with global reach, and is the only Western country with a stable population as well as fertility rate.
In politics, perception is power. However, in diplomacy, the personal touch is everything. Remember, we are talking about nations—which are nothing more than communities of people—and not widgets which are unchanging and predictable. Therefore, whatever tangible success a president may or may not have on his first trip to Asia, the fact that he is reaching out at a personal level and connecting with these individual leaders—dispelling their worst fears about him and his intentions—is an important step. Personal diplomacy goes a long way. It was a key element of former President George W. Bush’s diplomatic policy and bore significant fruit when dealing with both China and Russia. Whatever one’s problems with former President Bush may have been, his ability to work alongside and connect with many foreign leaders—especially leaders of countries that usually do not share American strategic aims or values, such as Russia and China—was profound. This was all thanks to the many hours and days Mr. Bush spent wooing fellow world leaders like Vladimir Putin and former Chinese President Hu Jintao at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The same may hold true for Trump in Asia.
Some good things came from Trump’s trip beyond the rehabilitation of links with the Philippines. One of those positive developments was nearly the $300 billion worth deals that the president signed with China. Most of those agreements aimed at expanding Chinese investment in American coal production. By doing so, Trump delivered his campaign promise to American coal country where he won decisively and overall benefited the nation’s economy.
Apart from the economic benefits, the deal was a sign of good faith on the part of the United States and a reassurance that America is still invested in maintaining its role in Asia. Moreover, Trump did exact from the Chinese a promise to intensify sanctions on North Korea. Yet, this promise was nothing new: the Chinese foreign ministry has been affirming China’s commitment to imposing harsher sanctions on their wayward North Korean ally for months. That being said, there’s a growing perception of solidarity between the region’s two most important players.
The biggest letdown, however, was the failure to realize the formation of the “quad” alliance of Asian states. Before the trip, many American foreign policy experts were hailing this as the beginning of the new military and economic alliance consisting of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan to counterweight China. Hugh White, a leading geostrategist in Australia (and a supporter of closer ties with Beijing) was highly critical of Trump’s APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) speech in Da Nang, and described President Trump’s subsequent private meetings with the leaders of the quad states as being a “damp squib.” White is right to criticize the American tendency that “just showing up” at APEC is enough to signal America’s commitment to the region, especially when China’s rise evidently challenges the old status quo in the region.
Nonetheless, after eight years of Obama Administration’s handling of the region and the failure to materialize America’s “pivot to Asia”, the impression was that Washington was looking for exits. During the George W. Bush Administration, as the Global War on Terror came to consume every aspect of American foreign policy, Asia simply fell away from the top priority. In either event, former Undersecretary of State for Asia Kurt Campbell described the Obama Administration’s obsession with focusing on Russian aggression in Ukraine rather than completing the much-ballyhooed pivot to Asia as being akin to “kids chasing a football.” This, more than anything that President Trump has either said or done (or not done or said), contributed to China’s rise and America’s current predicament in Asia.
Contrary to what people like White believe, the United States simply cannot come strutting in and fundamentally change the natural trend of the region toward China. This will take a concerted effort on the part of the Trump Administration, and it will be a long-term plan. The first step, then, is to create positive, lasting relations with the leaders of a region that has become highly skeptical of American intentions and reliability. This, coupled with the positive economic growth rates in the United States as well as the demonstration of strength, including defeating ISIS and standing up to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has undoubtedly reassured American allies throughout the world. In the meantime, it has complicated the geopolitical ambitions of America’s rivals.
President Trump’s recent trip to Asia did leave much to be desired. However, politics is the art of the possible. And what is in the realm of possible for America in Asia has decreased significantly since the 1990s. In the realm of the intangibles, the president undoubtedly scored some key points. It is likely that Asia’s leaders got to see a side of the president that has never been accurately portrayed in the media, and it is likely that they walked away with both a newfound respect for the man, as well as a deep understanding that he is truly committed to maintaining America’s staying power in Asia—even in the face of nuclear threats from North Korea and from economic and geopolitical competition from China.
As long as the Trump Administration builds off these new relationships that were forged between the president and key Asian leaders, America’s position in the region will be solidified; its allies will be assured; and the United States can actually compete at the geopolitical and geoeconomic level in Asia as never before. Trump’s Asia trip did what it could—and Trump did it fairly well. Give it time, because as Churchill noted, “time heals all wounds.”
Image source: Andrew Harnik/AP
About the Author
Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and founder of The Weichert Report. He holds an M.A. in Statecraft and National Security from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.
This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).