HONG KONG — At the heart of Taoist philosophy is the idea of accomplishing everything by doing nothing. Exhibit A would be China after the election of President Trump.
It only takes a few days in Asia to get the overwhelming sense that Trump’s presidency has given a dose of accelerant to China’s rise. And all China has had to do is follow Laozi’s doctrine, sit back and watch.
Now with Trump’s five-nation, 12-day trip to Asia looming, the region is bracing for the U.S. president to bumble through capital after capital, state visit after state visit, while China watches with glee. The last time a U.S. president spent so long in Asia was in 1992. President George H.W. Bush ended that journey by vomiting in the lap of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. The Japanese coined the expression “Bushu-suru,” or “to do a Bush.” One shudders to imagine what kind of “Trumpu-suru” the current president has in store.
Since he entered office, Trump has launched the most significant U.S. retreat from Asia since the Vietnam War. On his first full day at work, he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade group joining 12 nations along the Pacific Rim. The United States’ exit from that agreement set the stage for China to determine the course of trade relations in Asia. Now there’s even talk in Hong Kong that China might be invited to join the trade group.
Shortly after the TPP fiasco, Trump pulled the country from the Paris climate agreement, again ceding more ground to China. While Trump blasted the agreement, China’s President Xi Jinping committed the country to taking the lead on climate change. Trump’s threats to blow up the Iran nuclear deal prompted European powers to appeal to China to stick by its terms, again giving China more leverage.
In a recent speech following his anointment for another five-year term at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi spoke about the technologies of the future, about artificial intelligence and robotics. Meanwhile in the United States, Trump was lost in Twitterland, picking fights over the national anthem and insulting the U.S. justice system.
It used to be that China was considered a potential cause of instability in Asia. Now, to hear financial leaders in Hong Kong, it has become the United States.
Part of the tragedy is that Trump has actually assembled a solid national security team that is pushing a new concept for U.S. relations with Asia. In a speech last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the region by a new name, “the free and open Indo-Pacific.” Undergirding the phrase is the notion that the United States will embed its relations with China in its democratic partners, such as India, Japan, Australia, Indonesia and South Korea.
Still, as with many of the initiatives that have come from Trump’s team, the president couldn’t help but undermine the strategy. He’s done this before. Just as the nuclear crisis with North Korea intensified, he vowed to abrogate the United States’ free-trade pact with South Korea. He threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and, when word emerged that the U.S. State Department was conducting low-key talks with North Korean officials at the United Nations, he declared negotiations a waste of time. Trump’s bellicosity so unnerved South Korea that its president, Moon Jae-in, was forced to state publicly that South Korea would not tolerate military action on the peninsula without his approval.
Trump has also played fast and loose with Japan. On the campaign trail, he belittled the alliance, accusing Japan of free riding. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has had some success managing Trump, but fears remain high in Tokyo that Trump could yet abandon Japan.
In South Korea and Japan, America’s standing has fallen. In a Pew Research Center survey, only 24 percent of Japanese and 17 percent of South Koreans expressed confidence that Trump will do the right thing in world affairs.
Fundamentally, Trump does not seem to understand the benefits of alliances. In his world, all foreigners are out to get the United States. He can’t fathom that America First is not sufficient to deal with the multifaceted challenge of China, when, in reality, the United States needs all the friends it can get. It needs the Germans and other advanced economies to confront China on technology transfer. It needs the Japanese, South Koreans, Australians and others to work with it on security issues.
Trump also seems tone-deaf to why it’s important to stand up for American values. His failure to support human rights hurts U.S. interests in Asia — in Thailand, where a military junta has been in power since 2014; in Burma, where the military is considered responsible for the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims; and in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has littered his nation with scores of extrajudicial killings. U.S. advocacy of human rights is not simply something the United States does to make itself feel good. It does it because it’s an integral part of the long-term goal of having better-governed countries that are less susceptible to Chinese corruption, terrorism and other ills.
Finally, Trump’s bromance with Xi — underscored by his obsequious tweets congratulating the Chinese strongman on his recent “extraordinary elevation” as the chief of the Chinese Communist Party — has hurt U.S. interests in Asia. Why? Because they give the impression to the rest of Asia that the United States considers its relationship with China far more important than its ties to the rest of the region. Indeed, on the eve of his first trip to Asia as president, Trump is living proof of the adage I’ve heard here: “It’s very difficult to be America’s ally because you never know when she is going to turn around and stab herself in the back.”