by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
EVALUATIONS OF Trump’s Asia trip remain ambiguous, with Trump’s unorthodox means of conducting diplomacy leading to difficulties evaluating whether his trip advanced or compromised American interests in the Asia Pacific. However, an early evaluation suggests that while no fundamental shift in the status quo of the Asia Pacific has yet occurred following Trump’s trip, China’s position has been strengthened due to the image that the irregularities of Trump’s actions present to the international world.
While in South Korea and Japan, Trump notably stressed defense and economic ties with both. Moon in South Korea and Abe in Japan went out of their way to flatter Trump, likely hoping to remain on the unpredictable American leader’s good side, probably fearing that Trump could be taken in by flattery from Chinese president Xi Jinping during his visit to China and unpredictably reverse course on US-Japan and US-South Korea alliance relations, having in the past lashed out at both countries for freeloading off of the American munificence in terms of security ties in the Asia Pacific.
Subsequently, Trump’s treatment of Xi Jinping in China notably avoided confronting Xi regarding Trump’s past criticisms of China using unfair trade practices against America or raising longstanding American criticisms of China on human rights grounds. Instead, Trump emphasized how impressed he was by Xi’s hospitality, stating even that he did not blame China for taking advantage of the US in the past. This has been read as many as a loss of face for America which strengthens China’s position, seeing as Trump’s fawning over Xi and largely allowing Xi to set the tone of his visit to China is perceived as weakness.
Trump was also criticized for plans to not attend the East Asia Summit, which Xi would have attended, which would also would have been read as America vacating its position of power in the Asia Pacific to China, before such criticisms led Trump to change itinerary and declare that he would be attending the conference after all. A large trade deal of 250 billion USD emerged from Trump’s meeting with Xi, but it is unclear whether this is in fact anything new, or are old trade deals repackaged to make it seem as if some breakthrough has been reached.
Nevertheless, once out of China, at the APEC summit in Vietnam, Trump resumed criticisms of China and other countries of the Asia Pacific, lashing out at not only China but the Asia Pacific writ large for taking advantage of America. Emphasizing his “America First” viewpoint, Trump stated that he would not allow America to be taken advantage of by Asia Pacific countries again. And so, this may be a reversal of course from past statements Trump made in China, South Korea, and Japan, stressing close American ties with each nation.
Either way, this will likely lead to no substantive change in antagonisms between America and China in the Asia Pacific and the wariness of the unpredictable actions Trump administration by traditional American allies in the Asia Pacific such as Japan and South Korea will continue. As such, Trump’s visit to the Asia Pacific has not led to any change in the status quo within the Asia Pacific compared prior to his visit, but the uncertainties which exist under the Trump administration continue. America’s failure to reassure its traditional allies that it will maintain its traditional ally relationships with them will probably contribute to continued wariness of America from South Korea, Japan, and other nations and, again, America’s unpredictability may allow for a strengthened position for China within the Asia Pacific.
As for Taiwan, Taiwan largely hoped to escape notice from Trump during his visit to Asia, fearing that Taiwan would be raised in the context of Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping as a potential bargaining chip for Trump to use in securing a trade deal with China. While this does not appear to have happened, this is illustrative of Taiwan’s fears of being thrown to the wolves under Trump’s America. This, too, has not changed after Trump’s Asia visit and actions by the American legislature aimed at reassuring Taiwan, such as passing the Taiwan Security Act or Taiwan Travel Act, will probably do little to completely convince Taiwan it is not at risk from Trump.
Future disruptions to the status quo within the Asia Pacific are still very possibly after the Trump visit to Asia, then, although these disruptions have not taken place during the visit to date.