Donald Trump's first trip to Asia was an eventful, colourful affair that encompassed visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. There were a few excellent pictures, including Trump massacring Japanese Carp (see picture directly above) and Abe Shinzo taking a tumble on a golf course.
The trip was met with mixed reviews both domestically and across Asia. My personal view is that Trump managed to not cause any major diplomatic embarrassment to the United States but achieved very little from a strategic perspective. The inflective moment when China openly overtakes the US is accelerating towards us, as I discussed recently. This trip reinforced the view held by many that America, while a crucial partner for many future projects and plans in Asia, will not be the driver and leader of this region.
This is best captured in recent events concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The overarching aim of American foreign policy over the past decade has been a strategic pivot away from the Middle East towards Asia, with a key objective being the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
This would have been a free trade agreement between the United States and eleven different Pacific Rim states. The talks began in 2010. Trump withdrew the US from the discussion earlier this year, stating that individual trade agreements with each state would be of greater benefit to the US. The remaining eleven states agreed to the framework this weekend. While Trump will not see this as a failure, China may see it as a success. It is not currently a part of the agreement but may in time seek to join on its own terms and eventually dominate it.
The 19TH Chinese Communist Party Congress that took place in the weeks preceding Trump’s visit was a powerful demonstration of the political unity of the Chinese leadership under the President, Xi Jinping. There was no apparent heir to the throne announced and I think this shows that Xi Jinping is now the most powerful man in the world. The checks and balances of the US political system are increasingly limiting Trump’s preferred course of action on many of his campaign pledges.
However Trump’s hardline rhetoric on North Korea would have been welcomed by both South Korea and Japan.
"NoKo has interpreted America's past restraint as weakness. This would be a fatal miscalculation. Do not underestimate us. AND DO NOT TRY US."
To be honest, at this stage all this appears as is bluster by both sides. Petty squabbling between two insecure leaders who see potential enemies everywhere. The pettiness was surmised by Trump himself in this tweet;
"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?'"
Since the escalations in the summer I have always been of the view that it will not come to violence and that China is pulling the strings and using the situation to gain maximum leverage in future Sino-US talks…
One thing that has become obvious is that Trump is quite easy to manipulate. Sycophanyc and public displays of affection and loyalty will earn his trust, irrespective of the true underlying intentions. . A notable example of this was Trump’s behaviour in the Philippines. Despite some aggressive back and forth comments between Presidents Duterte and Trump in the past, Duterte put on a bit of a show and Trump loved it, summing up the relationship between them as ;
"We've had a great relationship. This has been very successful."
In summary, Asian leaders learned a lot about Donald Trump over the last twelve or so days. Despite his often-bullish rhetoric and strongman image at home, I think they have finally realized what Putin figured before the US presidential election had even finished. He is a man that has a very limited attention span, cannot focus on an issue over a period of months and years so is always acting reactively and not strategically and that through some grand gestures and displays can be easily manipulated…