Donald Trump, the American president, concludes his 5-country Asian trip in The Philippines today (14 November). Heralding his arrival in Beijing a week earlier – his third stop after earlier ones in Japan and South Korea – was a reminder of China’s trade surplus with America, data for which came out at US$26.6 billion for October; about US$223 billion thus far this year. And if he thought his trip would make China buy at least as much American goods and services as go the other way, he was a tad disappointed.
Of course, there was much pomp about the US$253.4 billion in deals signed between the two delegations. But much of these were not substantive. And some were actually just old deals. The extent of the divergence in the views of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and President Trump, would become writ large in Da Nang, Vietnam, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where they both headed afterwards. They provided sharply contrasting visions on trade in their speeches to the gathering of Asian-Pacific leaders. While President Xi espoused multilateralism, openness, and globalisation, Mr Trump was unapologetically insular in his views. Brief incidental interactions with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at the APEC summit, in place of a much anticipated formal meeting, did not yield much either. Because even though the Kremlin published a joint statement on the crisis in Syria, there was not much there that was new; a missed opportunity.
It did not help of course that the controversy over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential elections would not just go away; no doubt made worse by Mr Trump’s equivocation on the matter. In fact, what little progress that was made during his time in Asia was actually on matters antithetical to his agenda. A deal was reached by the 11 countries remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement he ditched, for instance; albeit there were a few hiccups here and there before that came about.
Mr Trump came out a little bruised on the North Korean matter as well. After initially striking a somewhat conciliatory tone towards the communist regime, urging it to do a deal over its nuclear weapons programme, he adopted an aggressive posture shortly afterwards in his address to the South Korean legislature; defiantly telling the volatile man up north not to test America’s might. Unsurprisingly, the North Korean regime replied with insults, calling Mr Trump an ‘old lunatic’, ‘warmonger’ and ‘dotard.’ Not one to take such expletives lying down, the American president threw back a few of his own, suggestively referring to Kim Jong-un,the North Korean leader, as ‘short’ and ‘fat’. Even so, if there is a slight chance of some deal with the communist regime, Mr Trump’s unusual style probably makes him best-placed to make it happen. China remains crucial to any potential progress, however. Unfortunately, they did not offer more than they already had on the matter.
Flatter to naught
The Japanese were more gracious at least; they imposed additional unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Not that this could necessarily be attributed to Mr Trump’s powers of persuasion: North Korea fired missiles over Japan in mid-September. And this was despite Mr Trump’s taunts at prime minister Shinzo Abe: He went on unabashedly about how the Japanese were inferior to Americans and wondered aloud why the Japanese did not shoot down the North Korean missile, suggesting how if they had American-made weapons, they would have been able to do so easily. (The Japanese are officially pacifist but have a military for self-defence purposes.)
Little wonder then his Japanese trip turned out to be a failure somewhat. He did not get much from them on trade; a major issue for him. (Like China, Japan also maintains trade surpluses with America; albeit at 9 percent of the total American trade deficit, it pales in comparison to China’s 47 percent). As if to buttress the point, the Japanese ruled out a potential Free Trade agreement (FTA) with the Americans, Mr Trump’s preferred route to dealing with trade imbalances. Instead, Japan led the effort to ensure a deal was reached on the so-called TPP-11. The Asians were all smiles but gave him little.