Touting ‘America First’ in Asia, Trump Sucks Up to China

Dan Wallace Nov 15, 2017

Donald Trump wrapped up the longest international trip of his young presidency yesterday and the first real test of his foreign policy chops as he toured Asia for 12 days to build international support for U.S. opposition to North Korea. He also laid out the details of his “Indo-Pacific dream” bilateral trade policy at two major economic summits in the region, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In China and South Korea, leaders echoed calls to dissuade Kim Jong-Un through sanctions and diplomacy. Trump warned the young dictator through a speech in South Korea that his is a “very different administration than the United States has had in the past. Do not underestimate us. And do not try us.” However, an attempt at a photo-op of Trump staring down the North Korean regime from across the demilitarized zone was stymied by a thick fog — perhaps symbolic of the general uncertainty that continues to envelop the dynamic between the United States and North Korea.

Sparking fears of nuclear war — over the most idiotic of causes at that — Trump later tweeted from Vietnam on Saturday that he would “NEVER” call Kim “‘short and fat?’”

Aside from his feud with North Korea, Trump’s trip focused on international trade, one of few foreign policy issues that Donald Trump regularly campaigned on. In countless stump speeches, he lambasted his predecessors for trade deals that, as he put it, “allow China to rape our country.” By connecting the $347 billion trade deficit conceptually with voters’ frustration at the sharp decline of blue collar jobs (mainly in manufacturing), Trump conjured a resounding image of a hostile China that took advantage of Americans but that would ultimately yield to his negotiating skills.

At his first stop in Japan, Trump seemed to combine the twin purposes of his trip, telling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe he should buy more American military hardware to protect his country from North Korea. “It’s a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan,” he said.

The Trump that toured China sounded little like the Trump who suggested labeling the country a currency manipulator.

While meeting with Japanese industrial leaders, the president stuck to his “America First” economics by lamenting the nearly $70 billion trade deficit that the United States has “suffered … at the hands of Japan for many, many years.” Although he repeatedly lauded Japanese investment in the United States, Trump pushed business leaders toward further investment, highlighting the renewed construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. “And we love it when you build cars,” Trump said. “Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask?”

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, a non-profit trade group, reported that in 2016, three-quarters of Japanese branded cars sold in the United States were manufactured in North America. While seemingly trivial, the mistake illustrates an insightful contrast in strategy from the more deferential approach he employed in China shortly afterward.

The Trump that toured China sounded little like the Trump who once suggested labeling the country a currency manipulator for devaluing the renminbi against the dollar. In a joint press statement, President Trump referred to his Chinese counterpart as “a very special man,” and expressed his “incredibly warm” feelings towards Xi Jinping, a principal architect of China’s modern monetary and trade policies. Trump also reversed his campaign rhetoric by saying that he didn’t blame China for the severe trade imbalance. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?”

Although President Trump pointed to the $250 billion in trade agreements American CEOs have signed with Chinese officials as immediate proof positive for his “America First” bilateralism, his Secretary of State was less enthusiastic. “The things we have seen thus far are pretty small,” said Rex Tillerson, referring to the deals that were drawn up mostly in the form of non-binding memorandums of understanding. “In terms of really getting at some of the fundamental elements behind why this [trade imbalance] is happening, there’s still a lot more work to do.”

Since Trump abandoned Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, China has further solidified its position as an investment powerhouse, funding development projects around the world. Additionally, it’s become clear that any strategy to force Kim Jong-Un to yield will almost certainly have to rely on China leveraging their import muscle against the regime. Narrowing the trade deficit with China, one of Trump’s signature foreign policy objectives, will depend on Xi’s government lowering barriers of entry for U.S. firms and allowing them to reach the expanding but protected Chinese middle and upper classes.

The dissonance between candidate Trump and statesman Trump points to the reality that through his own swaggering rhetoric about steamrolling the Chinese and North Korea he has essentially laid the fate of his foreign policy objectives at the feet of the Chinese.

Trump the businessman was also on hand during the Asia tour. Among those present at a meeting in Manila between Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines was developer Jose Antonio, who has partnered with the Trump Organization to build a $150-million luxury tower in Manila’s financial center and serves Duterte’s trade attaché to the United States. Trump later boasted of the “great relationship” he has with Duterte, who is accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings in a campaign against drugs.

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Photo: President Trump and First Lady Melania gaze at a picture book while President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, look on. Credit: Andrea Hanks/White House.

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