TRUMP IN ASIA
A DOSE OF FLATTERY
Saro Thiruppathy retraces the US president’s recent tour of Asia and finds a fragile ego
When US President Donald Trump set off on his Asian tour in November, his tasks were threefold: to strengthen American efforts to deter and isolate Pyongyang due to its burgeoning nuclear threat; promote bilateral trade relations in a bid to reduce the US trade deficit; and discuss his nation’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
At a cursory glance, other than lip service to the agenda and a spate of parties, Trump doesn’t seem to have achieved very much… except massaging his fragile ego.
FLATTERY Whether it was the bromance between the golf buddies in Japan, or the oozing charm of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in when
he said that Trump’s presidency is “already making America great again” or dining in the Forbidden City, the red carpet treatment was warm… enough to make Trump’s heart sing.
In fact, he was so ecstatic that instead of President Xi Jinping singing his praises, Trump wooed Xi and described him as “a highly respected and powerful representative of his people.” He said his meetings with Xi were “tremendous” and his feelings towards the Chinese leader were “incredibly warm.”
The US president even played a video clip of his granddaughter singing in Mandarin and Xi said her performance deserved an ‘A+.’
Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was the smoothest of hosts. The Japanese PM understood Trump’s insecurities and his endless need for flattery – and in true Asian style, he dished it out generously. Trump’s vocabulary no longer contains any anti-Japanese rhetoric in spite of all his previous griping about the massive expense incurred by the US to protect Japan and the economic benefits the latter gains through its exports to the United States.
After being flattered and feted in Japan, the US president flew to Seoul. During his scripted speech, Trump delivered a strong warning to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: “The weapons you’re acquiring are not making you safer; they’re putting your regime in grave danger.”
HUMAN RIGHTS In China, Trump didn’t want to upset Xi so he ignored the alleged human rights violations that are being perpetuated there. Nor did he bother to mention freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo who died in a Chinese prison in July.
Trump is so enamoured with Xi that he glossed over China’s perceived theft of intellectual property and unfair trade practices. He indulged the Chinese by saying: “Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
In Vietnam too, Trump dodged the sticky issue of human rights violations like the 10 year prison sentence handed to Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh – a Vietnamese blogger who had received an award from US first lady Melania Trump three months before.
Speaking on trade, Trump elaborated on his ‘America First’ theme. He told the Asia Pacific Economic Forum: “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I’m always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”
This declaration of ‘each man for himself…’ came on the heels of his efforts to mobilise Asian countries to boycott North Korea. He even offered to mediate in the territorial problems plaguing the South China Sea.
The US president believes that bilateral trade accords are better than multilateral treaties. This left many observers perplexed since it is common knowledge that multilateral deals are preferable because when more countries are involved, the benefits are also more. He is committed to withdrawing from as many multilateral agreements as possible – and so far, he’s done so with the recent withdrawal from the UN Global Compact on Migration, Paris climate agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
And he’s still trying to pull out of NAFTA.
ENTER CHINA What Trump fails to realise is that nature abhors a vacuum, and his decision to isolate the US is only harming America because the rest of the world is moving along with the TPP and the Paris climate agreement.
In addition, the US’ world leadership since World War II is waning, and China is slowly but surely moving in to fill the vacant spot. Xi spoke after Trump at APEC and assumed the role of defender of globalisation. But Trump didn’t notice… or didn’t care.
He had bigger problems on his mind like responding to Kim’s insults. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” Trump tweeted.
FRAGILE EGO Trump’s next stop was the Philippines where he was serenaded by President Rodrigo Duterte, when he sang: “You are the light in my world, a half of this heart of mine!” Trump lapped it up, and didn’t bother with the mayhem that Duterte is inflicting on his people under the guise of cleaning up the drug menace.
Instead, Trump lavished Duterte with praise, and claimed that the two of them had a “great relationship” and a “warm rapport.”
A photo op in Manila saw Trump smiling as he stood next to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen who has been busy jailing politicians and dismantling the main opposition party.
The US has lost credibility in the world due to its withdrawal from international commitments. And its preference for protectionist policies in a globalised world, its apparent preference to ignore human rights violations and instead dine with violators, and its president being serenaded by a number of controversial heads of nations is causing its lustre to tarnish!