by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
DONALD TRUMP’S recently concluded Asia trip was the site of much bizarre spectacle and pageantry, with Asia Pacific leaders going out of their way to tickle Trump’s ego. For the most part, Asia Pacific leaders rolled out all stops to flatter Trump, while attempting to show off their relationship with Trump in order to show that their countries still had stable ties with the United States. The notable exception to this is China, which nonetheless also went out of its way to flatter Trump.
Indeed, one can observe these attempts at flattery in any number of events which took place during Trump’s trip. Perhaps keeping in mind that the super-rich tend to invite celebrities to hold private performances for them, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe invited “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” performer Pikotaro to perform for Trump, and also went golfing with Trump and pro golfer Hideki Matsuyama, one of the top golfers in the world. For the most part, Abe has long since adopted the role of Trump’s loyal sidekick in the Asia Pacific, going out of his way to flatter Trump, as observed in that Abe was the first world leader to meet with Trump after his election victory, flying to New York immediately after Trump’s victory to congratulate Trump in person, presenting him with a $4,000 gold-plated golf club while doing so.
Likewise, with tensions with North Korea as a large foreign policy issue confronting both South Korea and America at present, South Korean president Moon Jae-in prominently featured the slogan “We go together” in official meetings with Trump, playing up the longstanding US-South Korean military alliance which has lasted for over six decades. Moon also attempted to take Trump to visit the DMZ border between South and North Korea before this had to be abruptly cancelled due to weather concerns. Moon also attempted to play up past tensions with Japan in front of Trump, serving Trump shrimp from disputed territories with Japan as well as inviting Trump–frankly, a man with a longstanding history of sexual assault–to meet a former sex slave during the period of Japanese empire. Nevertheless, this would not prevent Trump from taking to Twitter to antagonize North Korea during his trip, stating: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend—and maybe someday that will happen!”
Obviously, the Japanese and South Korean governments face threats from China in the face of weakening American military influence in the Asia Pacific, which is why Abe and Moon would to go lengths to play up their relationship with Trump. This would be to illustrate to the world—and specifically China—that their countries with America remains intact, despite Trump having threatened to deteriorate security ties with both and accused Japan and South Korea of freeloading off of the United States.
Indeed, while having previous adopted stark anti-American rhetoric which differed from his predecessors early in his administration, Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte was also among those who went out of his way to flatter Trump. Duterte sang the love song, “You are my light” for Trump apparently unbidden, in a bizarre scene which seems as though it could have been taken from The Act Of Killing. Trump later would emphasize the military and geostrategic importance of the Philippines as a “prime piece of real estate” in public comments.
And while that geopolitical tensions in the Asia Pacific between China and America may be the dominant issue which undergirds much of Asia Pacific politics at present, China went out of its to flatter Trump as well, playing video of Trump’s granddaughter singing in Mandarin, and holding unusually large banquets for Trump. Despite the unusual chumminess between Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping which has prevailed since Trump and Xi met for the first time in April of this year, Trump had previously lashed out at China for economically “raping” America and accused China of resorting to unfair trade practices to beat America economically. Trump instead played down such comments while in China, stating that he did not blame China for taking advantage of the US.
Either way, what the tendency of Asia Pacific leaders to flatter Trump shows—even those who had been previously antagonistic to him, as in the case of Duterte—or those who are direct competitors of the United States—as in the case of China—is that Asia Pacific leaders have decided that it is best to try and keep Trump pacified. It may be that Asia Pacific leaders, even those with geopolitical tensions against America, simply do not wish for unpredictability at present. As an unpredictable factor in the equation, it is better to try to keep Trump as stable as possible rather than hazard the risks that come with Trump’s unpredictability.
China, for example, actually has a lot to gain from American loss of face on the international stage through the actions of the Trump administration. But Trump’s actions may simply be too unpredictable and it remains a question as to whether Trump’s foreign policy establishment will follow Trump to the hilt if he makes sudden contingent breaks from longstanding American policy, given divided reactions to past breaks of precedent such as the Trump-Tsai phone call. China may not wish to gamble on this possibility at present. And so China may simply hope to keep Trump pacified at present as well.
On the other hand, while Trump has proven notoriously susceptible to flattery from international leaders, it is also a question as to whether any of this pageantry truly affects Trump’s views. In his speech at APEC, Trump made a turnabout from what he had said in various Asian Pacific countries and lashed out them for what he saw as their unfair practices against America, returning to past rhetoric. Again, this took place in spite of that immediately before this, Trump had spent much of the previous week being wined and dined by Asia Pacific leaders.
As such, the difficulty in judging the future direction of American policy in the Asia Pacific under Trump will continue. Trump simply remains an unpredictable factor in the equation of Asia Pacific geopolitics, whose unpredictable actions even flattery cannot hold in check.