Trump's Asia Trip: A Confirmation of the Status Quo

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul

Robert Kelly argues that Trump's trip scarcely moved the needle of U.S. relations with East Asia at all—and for very valid reasons.

There has been much commentary since American President Donald Trump returned from Asia. Critics saw the trip as failure (the strongest case for that coming from The National Interest’s own Harry Kazianis). The president himself naturally pitched it as a tremendous success. But the reality is almost certainly somewhere in between. Indeed, I would argue that the trip scarcely moved the needle of U.S. relations with East Asia at all. Given China’s continuing rise and consequent pressure on the regional order, Trump’s inability to do much with the trip could be regarded as a failure in a way. But given the reality of Trump’s woeful underqualification for the office he holds, this trip could have been far, far worse. In ratifying the status on North Korea and trade, the two big issues of the Asia tour, the trip actually amounted to little at all.

1 - Trump Showed Rhetorical Restraint

Trump showed more rhetorical discipline over a sustained period of time than at any point in the last two-and-a-half years, since he joined the presidential race. By choosing not to throw rhetorical barbs and bombs, as he so often does in U.S. politics, he did not disturb the regional status quo as he so easily might have.

Sure, this a preposterous standard in itself—the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’ Staying on message is something almost every serious politician learns, but Trump, of course, is not that. It was entirely possible—indeed, it was likely—that he would cut loose on Twitter against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, drop one of his notorious ad-libs (‘fire and fury’ or South Korea ‘appeasement’), or make some grossly inappropriate cultural error about a region he obviously knows little about. But he did not. He did not say entirely predictable Trumpisms like that the Chinese-Americans love him because he eats Chinese take out near Trump Tower, or that sushi is a Filipino delicacy, or that recent U.S. carrier drills in the Sea of Japan are that ‘armada’ he threatened in the spring. Nine months into a presidency which has included soft words for neo-Nazis and loose threats of nuclear war, this is an achievement. We should be happy this trip was so bland and normal. Given what we know of Trump, it should not have been, but somehow it was.

2 - Trump Passed on the Best Opportunity to Sell a War Against North Korea

This is biggest news of the trip. The president was a given a unique, high profile opportunity to address the South Korean public and government. He was invited to speak in front of the National Assembly. No U.S. president has been granted that privilege since 1933. The speech, unsurprisingly, received intense coverage here in the South Korean media, and there was much post-hoc analysis. If there was ever a time for Trump to make the case for war to an ally whose assent to that conflict is all but required, this was it. And Trump passed. Trump ultimately chose to reinforce the status quo—the continuing containment, deterrence, sanctioning and isolation of North Korea. This was moment of high drama, Trump’s best chance to sell the necessity of force, and he blinked. We now know what so many of us have suspected since Trump’s inauguration: he is bluffing on Pyongyang, and all his ‘totally destroy North Korea’ tweets and ad-libs are just bluster. We can say with much greater confidence after the trip that the United States will not in fact strike North Korea soon.

3 - Trump Choose Not to Seriously Challenge China on Trade

Here again Trump, for all his rhetorical heat, cleaved to the status quo. During the campaign, he talked as a tough protectionist, threatening to label China a currency manipulator on trade. He has complained for decades that Asian mercantilism destroys American manufacturing, and he even bizarrely complimented China during the trip for this by praising its ‘taking advantage’ of U.S. trade policy. Yet despite openly telling a Chinese audience that they are benefiting from unfair trade deals—and receiving applause for that from the audience—Trump outlined no major anti-Chinese action either on his trip or in his post-trip address.