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Trump Returns From Asia With Little in Hand

  • President Donald Trump, center, gives a statement before leaving for the airport, an East Asia Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is seen at right while National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is at left. Trump is on a five country trip through Asia traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

  • U.S. President Donald Trump waves goodbye as he enters Air Force One after participating in the East Asia Summit, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Trump finished a five country trip through Asia visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

  • Flanked by U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, U.S. President Donald Trump offers a departing statement after participating in an East Asia Summit, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Trump is on a five country trip through Asia traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

  • U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a family photo during the ASEAN-U.S. 40th Anniversary commemorative Summit in Manila, Philippines, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. (Manan Vatsyayana/Pool Photo via AP)

  • U.S. President Donald Trump, left, walks past Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as they arrive for a family photo during the ASEAN-U.S. 40th Anniversary commemorative Summit in Manila, Philippines, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. (Manan Vatsyayana/Pool Photo via AP)

  • Leaders from left to right, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, U.S. President Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pose for a family photo during the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Manila, Philippines on Monday Nov. 13, 2017. (Manan Vatsyayana/Pool Photo via AP)

  • President Donald Trump, right, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Trump is on a five country trip through Asia traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

  • U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and Related Meetings at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines Monday Nov. 13, 2017. (Rolex dela Pena/Pool Photo via AP)

  • Demonstrators display a mock U.S. flag to protest the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump and the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Twenty one leaders from the ASEAN and their Dialogue Partners, which included Trump, are on a two-day summit which ends today. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

  • President Donald Trump smiles while speaking during the U.S.-ASEAN Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Trump is on a five country trip through Asia traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Tribune Washington Bureau
Published: 11/15/2017 12:55:08 AM
Modified: 11/15/2017 12:55:12 AM

Beijing — In the photo, President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the yellow-tiled palace where emperors ruled the Middle Kingdom, as China called itself for centuries.

It was the first time a U.S. president had stood for a portrait with the head of China’s Communist Party in the middle of the ancient Forbidden City, what has long been the psychic heart of China. The next day the country’s state-controlled newspapers ran the image across their front pages.

Trump had been in Beijing only for a few hours, but already Xi had gotten what he wanted: to be seen, inside China at least, as an equal to the American president. What remains unclear is what Trump has gotten.

Just hours after his arrival, the president had demonstrated how willing he was to be flattered and to flatter back, while getting little in return, at least for now.

Trump’s grand reception in China was a highlight of his 12-day, five-country tour of Asia, where the specter of Beijing’s superpower aspirations is at the center of every other relationship the United States has in the region. Uneasy partners tried to game out how the U.S. intends to counter China’s rise while persuading it to bring its full weight to bear on resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.

They still don’t have answers. Like China, each country — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines — gave Trump the red-carpet treatment, and for the proud president, that alone seemed proof of his diplomatic success.

“It was a red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received. That really is a sense of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country, and I’m very proud of that,” Trump said on Monday in the Philippines, his last stop.

He and top advisers say that before long the shows of respect will translate into action on trade and North Korea. “The fruits of our labor are going to be incredible,” Trump said.

They aren’t evident yet. China remains resistant to cracking down on North Korea economically, as Trump seeks. As for trade, the president announced no firm deals or actual progress toward bilateral agreements to reduce U.S. trade deficits with the Asian nations, aside from claims of up to $300 billion in business deals that American and foreign companies promised. Flying home on Tuesday, Trump suggested the figure could reach $1 trillion, but observers suggested even the $300 billion sum is inflated.

The president’s challenge is that he is asking the nations to do more on North Korea even as he is demanding they get less on trade.

Also, he sent mixed messages. Alongside Xi in Beijing, Trump blamed his predecessors for trade practices that, as a candidate, he’d labeled as economic rape, and he applauded China for getting away with it. Once he’d left, in Vietnam Trump returned to attacking China.

In a speech in Seoul before the South Korean National Assembly, Trump first described at length the horrors of life in North Korea under the oppressive Kim dynasty, then invited Kim Jong Un to the table to talk about ending his nuclear program. He also posted the sort of provocative tweet — calling Kim “short and fat” in response to Kim’s taunts — that so worries allies such as South Korea living within close range of North Korea’s missiles.

In China, Trump had to spend down some of his guanxi, or influence, with Xi almost immediately after three UCLA basketball players were arrested there on suspicion of shoplifting. Trump asked Xi to help resolve the case quickly, and on Tuesday the players were allowed to board a flight to Los Angeles.

The takeaway for the countries other than China may have been Trump’s sheer presence, signaling that America wants to remain a player in the region despite Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade pact brokered by then-President Barack Obama and intended to counter China’s economic clout.

Yet there were also signs of how Trump’s “America first” retreat from multilateral trade leadership had left the United States somewhat sidelined. One of the most concrete results of the Asian summits Trump attended was a separate resolution among the other 11 TPP signatories, led by Japan, that they would enforce the trade agreement without the United States.

Trump bolstered his relationship with Japan by visiting that country first, golfing and dining with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seemed willing to play sidekick in Trump’s buddy movie; when Abe accidentally tumbled into a sand trap, Trump walked nonchalantly away.

In the Philippines, a longtime ally that the administration is eager to keep from China’s sphere, Trump displayed a stunning rapport with President Rodrigo Duterte despite the strongman’s sorry record on human rights, going so far as to join Duterte in publicly mocking Obama for his estrangement from Duterte.

Trump’s critics were quick to criticize his trip as long on pageantry and short on substance. Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer called Trump’s tour “a flop” and a missed opportunity to do more to counter China.

“He seemed far more interested in pomp and circumstance — red carpets, fancy meals and the flattery of foreign leaders — than advancing American interests in a region that is increasingly looking to China for leadership,” Schumer said.




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