President Trump in Asia: Washington has a steep hill to climb

The challenge for the US is to sell its ideas in a region which views Trump as a non-serious leader and Xi as seemingly visionary.

 Donald Trump, Asia, Japan, Trump Era, Harsh V. Pant
Photo: Shealah Craighead

The US President has landed in China as part of his mega five-nation Asia tour. A grand welcome awaits him as the Chinese government will leave no stone unturned in making sure that Trump’s ego is massaged sufficiently enough so that his transactional avatar might come to the fore, and China bashing is relegated to the margins. But make no mistake — the balance of power between the two major powers is already shifting to China’s advantage.

President Trump stands significantly weakened with a string of legislative defeats in Washington, loss of popularity, and turmoil within his administration. And Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. So the contrast is striking.

The challenge for the US is to sell its ideas and shore up its credibility in a region which views Trump as a non-serious leader and Xi as seemingly visionary. This at a time when Xi is challenging the fundamentals of the extant regional and global order.

At the recently concluded 19th Communist Party Congress, Xi said, it was time for his nation to transform itself into “a mighty force”, that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues, underlining this as “a new historic juncture in China’s development.” He also made it clear that “no one political system should be regarded as the only choice, and we should not just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries.” For Xi, “the political system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is a great creation,” thereby leading the charge against those who had assumed that democracy would be the natural outcome of China becoming more prosperous.

Xi insisted China did “not pose a threat to any other country,” but he is not ready to budge on contentious issues like the South China Sea. This assertion of China’s foreign policy was reflected in his mention of Beijing’s highly controversial island-building campaign as one of the key accomplishments of his first term.

Beijing did not seek global hegemony, but “no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests,” said Xi, forcefully reminding the world that this assertion of Chinese interests in the region is at the heart of the present turmoil in the larger India-Pacific.

The Trump administration has been hardening its stand vis-à-vis China, but its credibility remains questionable. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a recent speech, made it clear that Washington would continue to challenge China on fundamental values, and the US can never have a kind of relationship with an autocratic China that it can aspire with a democratic India. But how Trump evolves this into a coherent Asia policy remains far from clear.

Trump’s conflicting message to Japan

During his tour, Trump has managed to send some conflicting messages. In Tokyo, he raised the pitch against North Korea and in Seoul he lowered it a bit. Trump targeted Kim Jong-un directly and suggested that “despite every crime you have committed against God and man,” the US was prepared to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

His back and forth in so far as a visit to the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea was concerned, was also a sign that decisions on such a crucial visit were not being made with great thought. Members of the Trump administration had initially argued that the President would not visit the heavily fortified border zone, saying the practice was “becoming a little bit of a cliche, frankly.”

Seoul remains concerned that the Trump Administration might be tempted to deal with the North Korean regime unilaterally.

Trump berated Japan, one of America’s closes allies, for what he called “unfair” trade practices, accusing Tokyo of taking advantage of the US with its trade practices, especially in the automotive sector. His bombastic suggestion to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to shoot down ballistic missiles from North Korea drew on pushback from Abe, who sensibly made it clear that North Korean missiles would only be shot down “if necessary.”

Now in China, the real test starts for American diplomacy. Beijing would be hoping that a deal can be struck with Trump by welcoming him lavishly. The US president and his wife Melania have visited the Forbidden City, thereby becoming the first foreign leader to dine in the Forbidden City since 1949. This unprecedented step has not been taken by China to show how much it likes Trump. But it is a calculated move to ensure that Trump doesn’t go back to his China bashing agenda.

During his presidential campaign, Trump had called Beijing a currency manipulator and accused it of stealing US jobs. In his speech to the South Korean Parliament, Trump had pointedly targeted China and urged “all responsible nations” to isolate the North, and fully implement UN sanctions, downgrade diplomatic ties, and sever trade and technology ties.

Beijing would be hoping that the visit goes without any major hiccup. And in that they would succeed. Whether Trump would succeed in reassuring American allies and partners about Washington’s reliability as the region’s economic and security guarantor is a question which won’t be answered even at the end of Trump’s visit. For that the region will have to wait and watch how Trump’s rather shambolic foreign policy evolves in the coming months.


This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

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