President Trump’s trip to Asia was top-notch theater, but it was hard to find even one nugget of new foreign policy wisdom in all those hours.
We saw once again the degree to which this president just can’t take success for an answer. He made a respectably good speech in South Korea, and then went on to rub shoulders with Vladimir Putin and say all the wrong things.
Our intel officials were “political hacks” he told American correspondents, and Putin had not at all intervened in American elections. But then, and not even slightly embarrassed, the very next day he said he only believed that Putin believed that his people had not intervened.
But the visit did make clear that President Xi Jinping is now replacing this U.S. president on the world stage.
President Xi didn’t just roll out the red carpet for President Trump this time; he gave Trump the carpet in solid gold wrapping, with a toy panda on the side. Trump was treated to the first dinner for a foreign leader in the Forbidden City since the Communists took over in 1949. Trump loves this attention, and the Trumps responded, but in what turns out to be a contradictory way.
Video of President Trump’s adorable granddaughter, Arabella, was shown in China singing in Mandarin Chinese. A cute tribute, for sure. The only thing was that she sang to “Uncle Xi.”
This reminded me of when the head of the British foreign office told me that Britain’s problems with thinking of the maniacal Josef Stalin as a reasonable man began when Churchill started calling him “Uncle Joe.”
But there was another story from the president’s trip that got little attention, yet underlies everything that is happening in Southeast Asia.
A New York Times article from Hanoi quoted a prominent Vietnamese major general critiquing the presidential visit to Hanoi by saying: “I would like to give advice to the whole world, and especially to the United States, that you must be careful with China. Xi Jinping’s ambitions are dangerous for the whole world. China uses its money to buy off many leaders, but none of its close allies, like North Korea, Pakistan or Cambodia, have done well. Countries that are close to America have done much better. We must ask: Why is this?”
Times South Asia correspondent Hannah Beech then quotes Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, retired director of Vietnam’s Institute of Strategic Studies, as further noting that, in a lengthy address earlier this fall, Xi had called China a “great” or a “strong power” no fewer than 26 times.
Vietnam, the correspondent notes, “is worried about American inattention.” This fear is reflected across Asia.
Small countries in Asia are being pushed into China’s voracious arms by the U.S. exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact that would have given 11 smaller economies an alternative to the Chinese-led economic order. The pact would have imposed international labor and government accountability standards on these small countries; now those checks on power are gone.
The trip unquestionably strengthened Russia and China, and the Trump policies that underlay it threw smaller economies like Vietnam’s deeper under the big bus of China.
This is quite an accomplishment for a two-week trip around almost half of the world. But only if you’re Russia or China.