Even before the trip started, there were deep worries about what Trump's vision for Asia — or lack thereof — would mean for the region. I've been in East Asia for the past few weeks interviewing officials and experts in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The takeaway was stark: No one knew what to expect, but many were preparing for the worst. “Trump is a godsend for China’s rise,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at South Korea's left-leaning Sejong Institute, as Trump's trip began.
The president could have changed this impression. As he set off from Washington a little over a week ago, there were some positive signs. Trump arrived in Tokyo to an enthusiastic welcome from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who courted the American leader with golf, hamburgers and “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen.” In South Korea, where there were considerable worries that Trump would inflame tensions with Pyongyang, the president's speech to the South Korean National Assembly was stern but measured — and largely well received by analysts in Seoul.
In these early stops, Trump seemed to be offering a coherent vision for his Asia-Pacific policy — or, as the administration has dubbed it, the “Indo-Pacific.” The term has been used before by experts in the region, but it got its first unofficial U.S. government nod during a speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October. It's part of an effort to minimize the growing role of China in the region and instead emphasize the ties between the United States and the other democratic nations that form the newly reemergent “quad”: Japan, Australia and India.
But as Trump arrived in Beijing for the third leg of the trip, the narrative started to fall apart. Trump was bizarrely deferential to President Xi Jinping, with the American president lavishing personal — and unreciprocated — praise upon his counterpart. It was a remarkable approach for a president who has so frequently talked tough on China, as well as a contrast to Trump's condescending treatment of Abe, the ally whom Trump belittled a number of times during his time in Japan.
Trump also emphasized that China and the United States were “the two largest economies and important engines of global economic growth” and thus need to work together to help solve the world's problems. The statement clearly contradicted the spirit of the “Indo-Pacific,” instead harking back to an older concept: the Group of Two, or G-2. That idea, which was popular during the early part of the Obama administration, suggests that the United States and China should form an informal special relationship to reflect their power in the world. For countries that feel threatened by Beijing, the G-2 concept is worrying.
Things only got worse as Trump journeyed on to Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and, as it turned out, deliver a speech full of the tough, zero-sum trade talk that was a staple of his campaign rallies.
That language may have worked at home, but Trump's audience in Danang wasn't buying it. As The Post's David Nakamura and Ashley Parker put it, the reaction to this pitch looked a lot less like “America First” and more like “America Alone”— Trump's complaints of trade deficits and promises of bilateral deals have been greeted skeptically by many Asian states. Tellingly, 11 other nations used the summit to announce a tentative agreement for a new Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the multilateral trade deal that Trump axed on his third day in office.
This new version of the TPP is just one reaction to widespread uncertainty about America's role in Asia. Some countries that feel threatened by China are trying to bind themselves closer together to push for their interests. Taiwan, for example, is pursuing a closer relationship with Japan in the hope that Abe can be some kind of Trump whisperer. Others seem to be acknowledging China's growing regional leverage: The BBC's Steven McDonell noted that Xi's speech at APEC, which praised multilateralism, received a standing ovation. Trump's did not.
More unpredictability could follow. In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in is stuck next to an increasingly belligerent North Korea and has already had to capitulate once to economic pressure from Beijing. In Taipei, there are murmurs that President Tsai Ing-wen, under pressure from Beijing and enduring low approval ratings, could seek a desperate rapprochement with Xi. And in Japan, conservatives such as the recently reelected Abe are again pushing to reform the country's pacifist constitution and exert more military power to hedge against an uncertain future.
“Everybody thinks that the U.S.-Japan alliance will last forever,” said former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and supporter of rewriting the constitution, said in an interview last month. “I don't think so.”
Of course, former president Barack Obama's vision for U.S. foreign policy hardly pleased every ally in Asia. But with every stop on Trump's trip bringing more mixed messages, America's allies don't seem to know how to feel about his administration's policy. The good news is that Trump still has a few days of his trip left to offer a clearer picture of his vision for Asia. The bad news is that he may not be able to avoid distractions for long enough to do so.