The First Hundred Days: Trump Meets Asia…and Reality
May 1, 2017
The first 100 days of a president’s term—the “honeymoon period,” during which his power and influence are believed to be their greatest—are, whether rightly or wrongly, regarded as a predictor of a president’s success during the remainder of his term. Given the often bombastic tone of Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it was to be expected that the foreign powers against whom much of his vitriol was directed would seek to challenge the determination of President Trump to live up to his promises. And so it has been.
Trump and China
First to respond was China, whose aggressive moves to enforce its self-declared territorial claims, complaisant attitude toward North Korean development of weapons of mass destruction, and the huge trade surplus it enjoyed with the United States had been a particular focus of Trump’s criticism. On the same day the 45th President of the United States took the oath of office, the official website of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) posted a commentary stating that “‘a war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just empty slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.” Following Rex Tillerson’s statement during his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State that China should be denied access to the artificial islands it had built in the South China Sea, Renmin Ribao, the newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responded that the PLA would conduct exercises on the high seas regardless of foreign provocations. The foreign ministry’s spokeswoman warned the United States to be cautious in what it said and did “to avoid harming the peace and stability of the region.” Beijing also stated emphatically that China was not a currency manipulator and that it did not condone North Korea’s nuclear tests. Undeterred by China’s counter-thrusts, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley publicly rebuked “enablers” of North Korean belligerence and told China that U.S. strategic patience had ended: it would have to do more, or the United States would take care of it alone.
Despite Trump’s prediction that his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the former’s Mar-a-Lago estate would be difficult, the occasion was devoid of overt manifestations of disagreement. Trump, smiling broadly, announced that he “got nothing” from Xi, though apparently he gave nothing to Xi, either. There was no repetition of Beijing’s code phrases such as the “win-win cooperation for mutual benefit” formulation that newly-installed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had apparently unwittingly accepted. And, during dinner, Trump informed Xi that a missile strike against China’s ally, the Syrian government, was underway. That announcement set off a flurry of criticism on Chinese social media that their leader had allowed himself to be humiliated. By contrast, terse official comments spoke of a frank exchange of views, indicating that differences of opinion had been aired privately. Somewhat unusual for high level meetings of this sort, no joint communiqué was issued. Perhaps a partial, but significant, victory for Xi was Trump’s announcement via tweet that he no longer agreed that China was a currency manipulator: “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!”
What did happen was that North Korea marked the hundredth day of Trump’s inauguration with yet another missile launch. Although it failed, the launch seemed to show that Trump’s confidence in Beijing’s ability and/or willingness to deal with its North Korean client state was dangerously misplaced. A few days before that, the Chinese military launched its second, as yet unnamed, aircraft carrier, with an editorial in the state-sponsored Huanqiu Shibao declaring that future breakthroughs were now predictable and that a new page in the great book of China’s rise had opened. Trump, however, appeared convinced that his faith in the Chinese leader had not been misplaced, rebuffing the suggestion of another telephone conversation with Taiwan’s president (see below) by saying that he did not want to cause difficulty for Xi, whom he praised as “doing an amazing job as a leader.” Supporters feared that he had been charmed by Xi Jinping and that future China policy would be no different from that of the previous administration.
Trump and Japan
The Japanese government was likewise apprehensive about Trump’s victory, though for other reasons than China’s. As a candidate, the new president had complained about the country’s large trade surplus with the U.S. and hinted that, if Japan did not do more to provide for its own defense, he might withdraw American troops from Japanese bases. He also stated vehement opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan’s participation in which had been secured after a tortuous and time-consuming negotiation process. Trump made it plain that he considered major changes necessary to further open Japanese markets to American products. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s government, struggling to lift the Japanese economy out of a quarter-century of stagnation, was resistant to demands for either additional trade concessions or increases in military spending.
Several high level meetings, including Trump’s conversations with Abe in New York, Washington, and Florida, and between Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro in Tokyo, appear to have soothed, though not solved, concerns on both sides. North Korea’s missile tests lent impetus to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s desire for enhanced defense capabilities while at least temporarily muting dissenting views from its opposition parties. Two Japanese destroyers joined the carrier battle group Carl Vinson for maneuvers in the western Pacific.
On trade, the Japanese government expressed its preference for proceeding with multilateral negotiations, with Pence replying that the TPP was “a thing of the past” and that he favored discussions on a bilateral trade agreement. The Japanese side, believing that it would be impossible to get as favorable considerations in a bilateral arrangement, considered their options. Finance Ministry officials argued that the country’s trade imbalance was largely due to rising dividend payments and repatriation of revenues from overseas investments rather than a weak yen. Toyota, which had earlier drawn Trump’s ire for its plans to build a plant in Mexico, announced that it would invest $1.33 billion to retool its main American plant in Kentucky. A joint statement issued after the meeting, most of which was closed to the press, indicated that future talks would focus on new trade and investment rules, while the two sides would urge China to do more to curb the weapons development program of its North Korean client state.
Trump and South Korea
South Korea’s concerns pre-dated Trump’s election. Apprehensive over the belligerent behavior of its northern neighbor, the Seoul government had agreed to accept deployment of the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its soil, over the objections of the major opposition Minjoo Party. Shortly thereafter, President Park Geun-hye was impeached and later imprisoned over a scandal unrelated to the missile defense issue. Minjoo’s leader, Moon Jae-in, a strong contender to succeed Park in the upcoming May elections, strongly opposes the deployment of THAAD and advocates better relations with North Korea. Before Mike Pence left South Korea for Japan on his Asia trip, North Korea attempted yet another missile launch. In response, Pence reassured Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn that preparations to operationalize THAAD would be advanced, with Hwang, in turn, expressing his agreement to receive them.
How free even a Minjoo-led government would be to resist THAAD is open to debate: China, which opposes its deployment, fears that the system’s radar could be used to track its own missile deployments. It responded by levying sanctions against South Korea, setting off a backlash of anti-China sentiment among South Koreans that proponents of THAAD hastened to take advantage of. Moreover, Beijing’s heavy-handed efforts to force Seoul to comply also faced criticism even within China. In a rare public criticism of his government’s policy, one of China’s leading experts on Korea charged
You’ve got no foreign policy smarts. You’ve done exactly what your enemies would like you to do, and you’ve pushed South Korea into an iron triangle with the United States and Japan. . . . Are you a civilized great power or not?
Trump and Southeast Asia
Pence struck a softer note on his trip to Indonesia, beginning with praise for Indonesia’s moderate brand of Islam. The country, whose economy is by far the largest in Southeast Asia, had been named by Trump as one of 16 countries with which the U.S. has trade deficits. Although terming discussions with President Joko Widodo about reducing barriers on trade and investment “frank,” and cautioning that “respectfully, much more needs to be done to improve the business and investment climate,” Vice President Pence said at a meeting of leading business people in Jakarta that there were opportunities to pursue, and announced several major deals said to be worth more than $10 billion. According to an apparently satisfied prominent attendee, director of the Lippo Group John Riady, “I think the Trump administration is more globally minded and more trade and investment oriented that it would suggest on Twitter.”
Pence’s message of conciliation continued into his visit to Australia, where he agreed to honor an Obama-era decision to accept refugees now being accommodated in Australian detention centers on neighboring Pacific islands. Earlier, in an angry telephone conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the former referred to it as “a dumb deal” and abruptly ended the call. Pence stated, “We will honor this agreement out of respect to this enormously important alliance,” though adding “honoring it doesn’t mean that we admire the agreement.”
Notably absent from Pence’s visits to allies was Manila, presumably because of the erratic actions of its president, Rodrigo Duterte. In a stunning about face, in July 2016, just after the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines’ claim to the illegality of the nine-dash line under which the PRC claimed most of the South China Sea, Duterte said that he would be willing to share with China the development of the islands whose sovereignty it disputes with the PRC. He subsequently told the United States to leave the bases that his predecessor had two years before invited the U.S. military to use as a hedge against Chinese expansion. Shortly thereafter, he asked the U.S. to withdraw its advisers, and not to store weapons in Philippine camps, since these might entangle the Philippines in a confrontation between China and the United States. Duterte had reasons to be angry with Washington which as he pointed out, had done nothing to stop China’s moves in the South China Sea. Indeed, there had been no help from Washington when China essentially took over Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
In the following month, however, Duterte declared that the disputed islands would be fortified and that houses for human habitation would be built there, adding that he would personally plant the flag on Itu-Asa (Thitu) Island on the Philippines’ national day, June 12. A week later, he said that he had decided not to do so, “out of concern for friendship with China.” But in mid-April, his foreign minister and military chief of staff presided over a flag-raising and loyalty oath ceremony on the island. Thus far, the Trump administration has not responded to the comments of the mercurial Duterte, perhaps having opted to accord to the Philippines the strategic patience it vowed it had terminated with North Korea.
Trump and Taiwan
Also absent from Pence’s visit was Taiwan. Although a sense of the congress resolution attached to the 2017 Defense Authorization Bill lifted an earlier ban on high-level officials visiting the country to avoid arousing China’s ire, such visits have yet to take place. Taiwan citizens, who have consistently expressed resistance to Beijing’s pressures for “re”unification with a People’s Republic of China (PRC) that Taiwan has never been part of, were pleased when Trump received a call from President Tsai Ing-wen congratulating him on his election. Hopes that this event would translate into stronger support for their desire to continue as an independent state were set back a few weeks later when Trump said that he regarded previous U.S. China policy as a bargaining chip for trade negotiations, and shortly after taking office, Trump announced that he had acceded to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wishes by accepting “our” One China Policy (meaning that the U.S. acknowledged, but did not necessarily accept, Beijing’s view that there was but one China and Taiwan was part of it).
Hence Taiwanese were understandably nervous that Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago might result in acceptance of China’s definition of one China, i.e. that Trump intended to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip for a better trade deal with China. There was a collective sigh of relief when he did not, instead linking trade to stronger efforts by China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear tests. Further reassurance came via briefings by U.S. State Department officials prior to and after the Xi-Trump meeting that assured Taiwan that there would be no change in Washington’s China policy. Discussions continued on the size and content of an arms sale package that would enhance Taiwan’s ability to deter against Chinese aggression. However, it was clear that future Trump-Tsai telephone conversations were unlikely.
Trump and Asia: Mutual Adjustment and Strategic Patience
As the symbolic one hundred days closed, a pattern of mutual adjustment appeared to be taking place. While continuing to insist on the core issues he had campaigned on, the president seemed to have mellowed considerably on their implementation, no longer insisting, for example, that China was a currency manipulator, that he would no longer use the one China principle as a bargaining chip, and that he would give Beijing an apparently open-ended period of time to mitigate North Korean behavior. An agreement was reached with Japan on negotiations to further open its markets to American exports, and Trump agreed to honor the Obama-era agreement on accepting refugees from Australian detention centers.
The strident rhetoric did not completely disappear: Trump continued to threaten that if China did not act to deal with North Korea, the U.S. would act alone, that discussions on Japan’s easing its market restrictions must not be protracted, and that honoring Obama’s agreement on refugees did not mean that he admired the decision. In the end, a degree of amity between Trump and Asia may evolve, if for no reason other than that the alternative seems far less preferable to any of the parties concerned. For better or worse, strategic patience had returned.
Huanqiu Shibao, April 26, 2017.