Trump in Asia

06.11.17 Publication:

Normally, if a US President were to land in China in the midst of the longest visit to Asia by any American president for 25 years, it would be a demonstration of strength. But when Donald Trump gets to Beijing on Wednesday, following stops in Japan and South Korea, the predominant feeling will be one of weakness. Few officials and observers will be able to resist the thought that China’s President Xi Jinping might over the next few years take over global leadership from the US.

That thought would be premature, but not necessarily wholly wrong. For nearly a thousand years, Chinese emperors expected visiting leaders to pay tribute to them, bringing gifts and paying respects. President Trump may not realise it, but he will be doing something similar. He will be asking for China’s help in dealing with the country that has recently been threatening the US with long-range nuclear missiles, North Korea, and he is expected to announce some trade agreements that in Chinese eyes will amount to American payments in return for that help.

The man Donald Trump was elected one year ago to succeed, Barack Obama, had pursued an Asia policy that had two major elements: one was a big trade and investment deal with 11 Asia-Pacific countries, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excluded China with the intent of enabling the US to set the rules of the game in regional trade; the other was a “pivot to Asia” by transferring extra military units to the region as part of a challenge against China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea by building artificial reefs and bases in international waters.

President Trump tore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as he entered office. His rival Hillary Clinton also claimed to be opposed to it during the election campaign, but it was widely assumed that she would have reversed that position had she entered the White House, just as her husband Bill Clinton had done over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Instead, the Trump administration has been making threats towards China of tariffs and other protectionist measures on steel and other Chinese exports, but so far its threats have proved to be empty.

In defence and security, the US has essentially ignored all other regional security issues, including China’s territorial expansionism, in order to concentrate on North Korea, which he has threatened in tweets and speeches “to totally destroy”, accusing its leader, Kim Jong-Un, of being on a “suicide mission”. In President Trump’s view, he has been showing how tough and determined America is, following years of weakness and failure.

The trouble is that unless he is actually prepared to invade North Korea, President Trump risks ending up looking as if he is impotent or, to use an old phrase from China’s Maoist era of the 1950s, just a “paper tiger”. The head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear-Admiral Michael Dumont, wrote in a letter to a US Congressman that was released on November 5th that a ground invasion would be the only way in which the US could locate and completely destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and that such an invasion would involve an incalculable level of casualties.

For that reason, it makes sense for the US to strengthen its alliances with Japan and South Korea, as President Trump is doing by visiting those countries first on this 11-day trip. But unless he can persuade China to take some decisive action, either economic or military, no actual progress can be made on the North Korean problem. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un might well seek to show his own strength by carrying out more missile or even nuclear tests during President Trump’s journey through Asia.

So the American president will feel at best as if he is powerless, at worst like a supplicant. There is even a possibility that while he is in one of the five countries he is visiting, back home in Washington, DC, the special prosecutor investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence last year’s election, Robert Mueller, may announce new arrests and release new information. If so, the US president’s trip may come to look less like the victorious display of power that he would prefer, and more like a preliminary to a farewell tour.

 It would be just as premature to judge that President Trump is going to be brought down by former FBI Director Mueller, as it would to judge that China is taking over leadership. But in China’s case, it would be fair to say that American weakness represents a big opportunity to at least move in the direction of leadership. China can cement its own relationships in the region while America is distracted, increasing the dependency of other Asian countries on Chinese trade, aid, investment and security.

China, after all, has begun its massive “one belt, one road” strategy of infrastructure investment and trade-facilitation across Asia, through Central Asia and towards Europe. Its symbolic ambition is to recreate the “Silk Road” that in Medieval times connected Italian and other European cities to Beijing. But its political ambition is to create dependency on China, giving it leadership and leverage all around the region.

That is what America used to have. President Trump’s visit will confirm that those days are long gone, even if China’s days remain yet to come.