President Trump returned Tuesday night after 12 days in Asia. So what did we learn from his stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines? Here are five takeaways:
1) Trump embraced alliances (sort of) but didn’t really reassure anyone
A typical goal of presidential trips is to tend to alliance relations — to maintain and renew ties, provide reassurance where needed or smooth over problems. Given Trump’s long-standing skepticism of alliances, there were significant questions about whether he would reassure anxious allies in Japan and South Korea.
The Japan leg of the trip went reasonably smoothly. Given the close bond Trump has formed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that’s perhaps unsurprising.
A smooth visit was not a given in South Korea, where relations have been frosty. Since taking office, Trump has called on South Korea to pay for the THAAD missile defense system and has threatened to end the U.S.-ROK free trade deal.
And Trump’s repeated threats to use unilateral force against North Korea are damaging to the U.S.-Korean alliance, forcing the progressive new president, Moon Jae-in, to distance himself from the United States. South Korean public opinion of the U.S. president is at a nadir.
On this trip, however, Trump embraced the U.S.-ROK alliance, praised Moon’s hospitality and demonstrated respect for the South Korean people.
Some of that reassurance might have evaporated once Trump headed to China. In Beijing, Trump heaped praise on President Xi Jinping for his consolidation of power at the recent 19th Party Congress and called him “a very special man.” Trump appeared more concerned with pleasing Xi than with pressing him to crack down on North Korea.
In Southeast Asia, Trump reverted to an “America First” message and began to lash out publicly at his adversaries. He hailed his strong relationship with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He declined to press Duterte on his egregious human rights abuses and joined him in publicly mocking the press pool as “spies.”
They may be relieved that Trump did not ratchet up tensions while on their soil, but leaders in Japan and South Korea are not likely to be convinced that Trump has reverted to a more recognizable or dependable foreign policy.
2) We still don’t know what to expect from the Trump administration’s North Korea policy
A central message before Trump’s trip was the need to pressure North Korea on nuclear weapons. Yet Trump did not come any closer to articulating a North Korea strategy.
Despite weeks of signaling that the administration was considering dangerous military strikes against North Korea, Trump refrained last week from any tweets of unilateral first use of U.S. force against Pyongyang. Instead, he called for increased economic pressure on Kim Jong Un’s regime and indicated a willingness to eventually hold talks.
Trump’s objective remains complete and total nuclear disarmament, which most experts agree is impossible. He also appears to believe that he can continue to count on China’s willingness to enforce more sanctions, although Beijing is unlikely to crack down meaningfully on Pyongyang. It remains difficult for the region to divine where Trump’s North Korea policy is headed.
3) Trump sent mixed messages on trade — but Asia isn’t biting
For many states in the region, the most distressing moment of Trump’s trip may have been his address at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Trump delivered an “America First” message that explicitly maligned multilateral trade — what APEC is all about. Asian countries harbored no illusions that Trump would return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but he vilified the trade deal and added new warnings of heavy U.S. tariffs and quotas.
Trump has continued to boost the U.S. willingness to conclude bilateral trade deals, but most of these countries are uninterested in these state-by-state pacts. The Trump administration has offered no positive economic agenda for Asia thus far. With his mercantilist message, Trump only isolated himself from a region that is increasingly dynamic, open and prosperous. Trump also hobbled his own message on trade, blaming past U.S. leaders rather than China for the bilateral deficit and praising some of Beijing’s exploitative economic policies.
4) The “Indo-Pacific” security framework did not break through
Shortly before the start of the Asia trip, top administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, began to trumpet a new strategic framework for Asia: a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which emphasizes democratic U.S. allies and partners, an increased role for India and an alternative to a China-led Asia.
Trump used the term “Indo-Pacific” frequently, but the framework itself did not become more concrete. It was difficult to reconcile Trump’s mercantilist message and emphasis on personal diplomacy with a soaring liberal vision for U.S. regional leadership.
5) Trump helped Xi’s narrative that Asia’s future lies with China — but not everyone is on board
Before the Asia trip, a number of analysts wondered: Would the U.S. president only contribute to the narrative that China is ascendant and America in abject decline?
This sentiment is not new, but a product of the ongoing relative power shift in China’s favor. Since the 2016 election, Xi has sought to create the impression that China holds the key to the region’s economic future and is the more responsible of the two great powers.
Trump’s adulation in Beijing allowed Xi to advance this message quietly. “I told the president that the Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States,” Xi said, implying that the United States had plenty of room across the international date line. At APEC, the Chinese president continued to press the disingenuous argument that the future of globalization lay with China.
But Trump’s visit was not an unalloyed win for Xi. The United States, Japan, Australia and India revived their “Quad” security partnership, and Japan and Australia have led the region in pushing ahead with TPP-11 — a version of the regional trade pact that will continue without the United States.
For U.S. allies and partners, networking among themselves to balance China remains a dominant strategy — and an insurance policy. By creating multilateral security and economic structures, they can save a place for the United States, should it wish to return to a more traditional foreign policy orientation in a few years’ time. They can also prepare to protect their own interests if Trump’s erratic Asia policy proves to be more than a brief aberration.
Overall, the trip yielded few concrete policy deliverables. Perhaps most importantly, the trip did not move the Trump administration closer to a coherent Asia strategy.
Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.