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Trump's Asia tour highlights transactional approach to diplomacy

Muhammad Zamir | Published: November 12, 2017 19:59:39 | Updated: November 13, 2017 11:23:26


Lei Jun, Founder and CEO of China's smartphone maker Xiaomi, attends signing ceremony with US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 09, 2017. — Reuters

President Donald Trump's 12-day Asian tour has been an example of transactional approach within the paradigm of international relations. We have seen a similar direction during his initial tour in that took him to Saudi Arabia and later to different countries in Europe and also to Israel. This trend was also evident during his meetings in Washington and New York with heads of government from different countries who came to call on him after his victory in the Presidential election.

In a manner of speaking, it has been "America first" all the way. This means, if any country desires a higher degree of US partnership, then it needs to find out ways as to how it can purchase more US products - and through such measure reduce existing balance of trade advantage that it might enjoy vis-a-vis the USA. It may also be interpreted as a functional step aimed at enhancing employment opportunities in the USA.

This Asian journey came amidst a growing vulnerability of the Trump Administration in the domestic front. A crisis has gradually engulfed Trump. This has been initiated with Mr. Mueller indicting Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump's former campaign manager, on 12 counts, including tax evasion, money laundering and "conspiracy against the United States". It has also been revealed recently that another former aide of the President, George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to having lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russia while being associated with Mr. Trump's campaign. This dynamics has raised questions as to whether Michael Flynn (who was Trump's first National Security Adviser) was also involved in any manner with this fiasco.

This evolving political scenario back home gave Trump's trip a sensitive dimension.

During his visit to Japan, Republic of Korea and Vietnam, President Trump has tried to reassure these countries that the United States, in the words of Edward Luce, "will remain a steadfast Asia-Pacific power in the context of an increasingly ebullient China".

This has, however, been slightly awkward given the fact that the United States, after Trump assumed his Office, pulled out from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade deal.

The other focal point has been a sustained effort by the USA to convince China to dismantle North Korea's "metastasizing nuclear weapons programme". This aspect has assumed particular significance after intelligence agencies have determined that Pyongyang might develop the capacity to strike the US mainland within 18 months. It may be recalled that in August this year Trump had warned North Korea that it might face "fire and fury" if it continued with its nuclear programme and its guided missile tests.

Addressing cheering military personnel at Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo, on his arrival in Japan, he reminded the North Korean dictator, "We will never yield, never waver and never falter in defence of our people, our freedom and our great American flag". Such a comment, as expected, was responded with a rhetorical volley from North Korea's ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmen warning the "spiritually instable" President against making "reckless remarks".

In Japan, Trump retained a hardline approach on the North Korean issue. In response, Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, strengthened from a crushing victory in a snap election held just before Trump's visit, observed that Japan, a trusted ally, believed there was the need to further cement Japan-US alliance, based on trust. Speaking to the media later on, Trump reiterated that both Japan and the US believed in a strong approach towards Pyongyang.

Then came the first hint of a softening the bellicose stance and he praised the North Korean people as being "great and industrious - much warmer than the world really knows or understands".

In Seoul, the North Korean issue persisted. It may be recalled that Trump had earlier denounced South Korean President Moon Jae-in's overtures towards North Korea as "appeasement". This time, Trump on arrival, received a warm welcome from the government, but at the same time had to face Seoul protesters who opposed possible war with North Korea. The result was a firm but a more toned-down approach from Trump.

This was reflected in comments made by Lt. General R. McMaster, Trump's National Security Adviser. In remarks given to Yomiuri Shimbun, he emphasized that Trump now feels the need to "consult with leaders across the region to understand better what more can be done to resolve this crisis short of war - which obviously everyone needs to avoid".

This effort to reduce tension ended with Trump, urging North Korea on November 07 to "come to the table" and discuss giving up its nuclear weapons, which, as he put it, was "the right thing, not only for North Korea but for humanity all over the world".

Trump through his trip to Japan and South Korea has directly underlined the need for reinforcing America's alliances with these two countries - partnerships that he had previously discounted and belittled during his election campaign. This time round, there was a conscious effort to underline, before arriving in Beijing, that both these countries were clearly on the side of the United States and its geo-strategic parameter regarding security and trade. It was also a way of drawing China's attention that China should follow through on its pledge in the United Nations Security Council and tighten its sanctions on North Korea.

Beyond foreign policy, Trump's Asia tour, as expected, placed special emphasis on promoting trade prospects of US industries. A large group of US corporate leaders accompanied US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to China. They sought and struck business deals worth US$250 billion. These included an agreement whereby state-run China Aviation Supplies will purchase 300 planes from Boeing at a cost of US $ 37 billion. This has been seen as a step forward because of existing difficulties that are still being faced by US companies like Facebook Inc., Google, Ford Motor Company and General Motors in China. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, however, indicated to journalists that the deals were "pretty small" in terms of tackling the existing trade imbalance between the two countries.

Trump was astute in his approach. Instead of just criticism, he offered praise - not condemnation - of China's trade practices, a remarkable stance for a US president on his first official visit to Beijing. "I don't blame China," Trump said. "After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit."

China, after consultation, agreed to open parts of the Chinese market that are closed to outsiders. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has indicated that China will further lower entry barriers in the banking, insurance, and finance sectors, and gradually reduce vehicle tariffs.

These bilateral agreements between the two countries are apparently a step forward. This is being interpreted as greater reciprocity in market access and competition. The US is now looking forward to greater access to the Chinese financial services market. China presently leads the world in financial technologies (fintech) with the potential of making payments by mobile phones instead of credit cards.

It is worth noting the Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken some bold decisions regarding sensitive bilateral trade and financial engagement with the USA. This reflected Xi's elevated stature following the 19th Chinese National Congress.

In Da Nang, Vietnam, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit of the Pacific Rim leaders on November 10, Trump, as expected, brought his hard-line economic nationalism to the forefront. He issued a stern rebuke of trade practices that, according to him, has harmed American workers. The President also continued to insist his US predecessors were to blame for this situation. It was a familiar message delivered to an audience that is still coming to grips with Trump's protectionist views that has led him to withdraw USA from the matrix of the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- the landmark trade accord negotiated by the former Obama administration.

Thus, despite many existing challenges, the businessman in Trump, once again, was more or less consistent. His transactional approach remained the flavour of his trip. In its own way, it will generate employment in the United States. 

 

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

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