Trump in Asia Kept One Eye on Re-Election, With Push for Deals

By: | at 06:11 AM | International Trade  

President Donald Trump had one question for Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc: Why wasn’t his country buying more American military equipment?

For Trump, a self-styled traveling salesman, crisscrossing the region to reverse decades of trade deficits, Vietnam’s decision to buy arms from Russia was incomprehensible, almost insulting. Never mind that U.S. law prevented such sales until last year.

Trump reminded Phuc that he’s been president for 10 months, according to two people who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting. What was he waiting for?

He needed quick wins, he told his team in the room, because he’d be running for re-election before anyone realized. And weapons sales, in Trump’s view, are good for his approval ratings.

The meeting was a microcosm of the president’s 11-day tour through Asia, a marathon trip where Trump was repeatedly lavished with flattering gestures by foreign leaders, but frustrated in his desire to score quick wins on trade or North Korea that would buoy him politically back home.

Asian nations were looking for signs Trump hadn’t abandoned the region when he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in January. The White House seemed to suggest the sheer length of the trip was proof enough, with both Trump and his aides referenced it again and again.

Regional Expectations

Local leaders were looking for seriousness and not just stamina, any sign Trump was prepared to provide a potent counter-balance to China. There, he offered them little reason for optimism. He was already tweeting about the tax reform fight back home before he even left Manila, his final stop.

The administration “is not fully meeting regional expectations for U.S. leadership,” according to Scott Snyder, author of the forthcoming book “South Korea at the Crossroads.”

“The president’s presence in Vietnam and the Philippines at the region’s premier regional gatherings was the minimum prerequisite,” Snyder said. “But in the absence of a more specific and clearly articulated regional strategy toward Southeast Asia, it will likely be seen as falling short of expectations.”

Much like his first foreign trip in May, which began with $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump rarely set down in a country without pointing out that buying a few F-18s would go a long way toward winning his heart. He told the story repeatedly of how a U.S.-sold missile-defense system had knocked down a rocket targeting an airport in Saudi Arabia.

But he’ll return home to Washington without having secured a major new order for American defense contractors.

Warm Welcome

In China, the trip’s most pivotal stop, Trump expressed his awe at the Forbidden City tour and opera performance he received and bragged that he had gotten President Xi Jinping to publicly declare his desire for a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

“That’s a big statement,” Trump said. “He made that statement, and a lot of people didn’t—they didn’t pick that up.”

But China has publicly supported a denuclearized Korean peninsula since at least 2005, and Xi has made the point publicly for years.

The two countries did announce $253 billion in business deals, involving U.S. industrial giants such as Boeing, Honeywell and General Electric, tech companies like Qualcomm and even Goldman Sachs. But many of the deals are tentative agreements that might not be fulfilled, and the one market-opening move by China, to allow greater foreign ownership shares in financial companies, didn’t even warrant a mention by Trump.

In Hanoi, Trump also oversaw the signing of a series of memorandums of understanding between American energy and aerospace companies and Vietnamese state-owned-enterprises. But no dollar amounts were announced, and members of the White House press staff deferred to their Vietnamese counterparts to explain what the agreements involved.

Work to Do

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to reporters shortly after the Chinese deals were announced, conceded that there was “a lot of work left to do to progress trade to the point that it will achieve President Trump’s objectives.”

“Quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a $300- to $500-billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small,” Tillerson said.

Trump also struggled to gain traction on North Korea, leaving Beijing without any new public assurances from China about measures that would exceed the financial punishments mandated by the United Nations.

His efforts to improve military cooperation between Japan and South Korea to counter the threat from Pyongyang were met largely with a shrug by leaders of those two countries, which favor different approaches to defusing the crisis.

Trade Vision

At the state dinner in Trump’s honor in Seoul, the South Koreans served shrimp caught in waters off islands that are claimed by Japan. In a further barb, the guests included a woman who had been forced to work as a sex slave for the Japanese military during World War II.

An address in Vietnam intended to contrast his global-trade vision with China’s had a scolding tone, sounding less like an invitation to link arms than a warning that the free ride was over. Xi, for his part, welcomed the world to “ride the fast train of China’s development.”

Trump said too many countries had flouted the rules and hurt American workers and companies. He said the U.S. would no longer join multilateral deals, like TPP, which the remaining 11 participants spent the week negotiating without his input.

The speech was the “latest nail his administration has driven into the multilateral trading system, which countries regard as instrumental to the region’s growth and development,” according to Lynn Kuok, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, and a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Russian Tensions

Nor was the president able to leverage his time with Russian president Vladimir Putin into tangible progress on how to handle the Syria conflict after the expected defeat of Islamic State militants. An expected formal meeting between Trump and the Russian leader never materialized, and a joint statement issued by the two countries essentially committed to maintaining the status quo.

Trump did seem to get under Putin’s skin a bit by playing hard-to-get on a formal meeting, leaving the Kremlin trumpeting their chat during a short walk as the much-heralded get-together.

Still, even those informal discussions managed to create a new political headache for the White House when Trump told reporters that he believed Putin believed his own denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The comment angered some in his own party, who argued that the former KGB agent’s denials weren’t credible. The U.S. president later clarified that he agreed with the assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian culpability.

White House officials dispute the notion the president’s trip was light on accomplishment.

Lasting Benefits

They say that speeches like the president’s address to the South Korean parliament, where he graphically detailed the horrors of life under the North Korean regime, and his trade address in Vietnam will set important markers for foreign policy under Trump.

They also see the stream of state dinners, summit galas, and military parades as accomplishments in their own right. They argue the administration is attempting repair and renew relationships that had frayed under President Barack Obama, saying Asian leaders shared Trump’s perception of the former president as a lecturing scold.

The administration believes that Trump’s embrace of Asian leaders—punctuated by asides about golf, blunt policy conversations and a freewheeling style—would pay more dividends than forcing potential partners into uncomfortable statement about human rights. And Trump sees the red carpet welcomes as a result of his campaign to restore international respect for the U.S.

The president, perhaps sensing that the lack of hard-and-fast deals was going to be noticed back home, promised Monday he would give an address upon returning to Washington to outline his accomplishments.

“I will be making a major statement from the @WhiteHouse upon my return to D.C. Time and date to be set,” Trump tweeted.


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