US President Donald Trump’s first year in office has proven to be the chaotic, rambling Twitter-fuelled reality show that his many critics feared when the braggadocious billionaire and one-time television star became the first US president elected without any government or military experience.
There has been the head-spinning reshuffle of top White House personnel and a mountain of near-daily misstatements from the press office (“the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period”).
There was the messy, unplanned roll-out of the problematic “travel ban”. There’s been the stench of crony capitalism and nepotism with the hiring of his daughter and son-in-law into influential West Wing positions, and the greater stench of racial insensitivity (lauding parading neo-Nazis as “fine people”).
In foreign policy, there was the abrupt withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and then from the Paris climate agreement. There was the hectoring to America’s Nato allies to pay more, and the openly voiced consternation among European leaders that the US could no longer be counted on.
And all of this was against the backdrop of an ongoing special counsel investigation into whether Russia interfered in the US election to help boost the Trump campaign; there have already been indictments and guilty pleas with more expected.
This is surprising because Asia was one region where candidate Trump most promised – or threatened – to reshape policy. During his campaign, Trump labelled both China and Japan as “currency manipulators” and threatened a trade war over what he called their unfair trading practices. He called the South Koreans and the Japanese freeloaders for not paying enough for the American security umbrella, and suggested he would be fine with the two countries acquiring their own nuclear arsenals. He vowed to tear up the 5-year-old Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, calling it unfair.
Candidate Trump said he would not fete President Xi Jinping with a state dinner but instead serve him a McDonald’s hamburger. And he angered Beijing in his first days in office by holding a friendly phone call with the president of Taiwan.
Yet after a year in office, Trump has found a way to nuance or totally discard many, if not most, of his previous positions on Asia. Normally, political opponents and critics would deride a president who so blithely jettisons his old campaign rhetoric as a “flip-flopper”. In Trump’s case, those opponents and critics are breathing a sigh of relief.
The biggest change from rhetoric to reality has been in US relations with China.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump told one rally of supporters: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
Trump at various times accused China of stealing American jobs, hacking into US computer networks, and inventing climate change as a “hoax” to disadvantage American companies. He even said he was “not surprised” to find Chinese athletes cheating at the Olympic Games because, he said, “that’s their MO”.
The US-China relationship was set to enter its most contentious phase perhaps since the normalisation of relations 45 years ago under Richard Nixon.
But the Chinese leadership learnt to take the measure of the man. Xi paid a pilgrimage to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and lavished the novice president with the praise he covets. Xi also came with gifts in the form of some token trade concessions, like lifting China’s 14-year ban on American beef, opening a potentially lucrative market to US cattle farmers. Trump came away boasting about his great new relationship with his new “friend” Xi.
Later, in his November visit to Beijing, Chinese leaders treated Trump royally, opening up the Forbidden City for a state dinner – making Trump the first foreign leader so honoured since the Communist Revolution of 1949.
In return for the flattery and red carpet treatment, Trump tempered his earlier rhetoric about China as a trade cheat and currency manipulator. “I don’t blame China,” Trump said in Beijing. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country to the benefit of its citizens?” Trump instead blamed his own predecessors in the White House, saying they, not China, were responsible for letting “this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and to grow”.
Similarly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw early on that the way to get along with Trump was to stroke his outsized ego. Abe became the first foreign leader to visit Trump after the election, where they bonded over golf. Later, on Trump’s Asia trip, Abe called Trump his “favourite guy” to golf with, and presented the US president with a “Donald and Shinzo” baseball cap emblazoned with a variation of Trump’s signature theme: “Make Alliance Even Greater.”
In South Korea, the Trump administration now aims for more modest tinkering to the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, rather than a complete overhaul or scrapping it altogether. During his brief stop in Seoul, Trump focused most of his remarks on bolstering the military alliance he once scorned, and warning North Korea to denuclearise and come to the table for talks.
Trump still remains mercurial and unpredictable, particularly when he takes to Twitter, leaving many of his administration’s policies contradictory and confusing. On China, for one, while Trump lauded his new bromance with Xi, and revelled in the royal treatment he received in Beijing, back home in Washington he released a new National Security Strategy document that listed China – along with Russia, North Korea, Iran and an Islamist terrorist group – as one of main threats to US power and influence in the world. Trump also seems likely in early 2018 to pursue new targeted trade penalties against imported Chinese steel, aluminium, washing machines and solar panels.
North Korea is another example. In speeches and in his Twitter blasts, Trump likes to personally disparage Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong-un, with childish taunts like “little Rocket man” and calling him “short and fat”. His bellicose outbursts, almost threatening an all-out war, have unsettled many in the region.
But behind the schoolyard jibes, real diplomacy is taking place and it reflects a remarkable degree of consistency with past administrations by using international alliances to tackle global problems.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced plans for a January 16 summit in Vancouver for the 16 nations that sent troops to help South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean war, along with Japan, South Korea and India. And Joseph Yun, the state department’s special representative for North Korea policy and a career foreign service officer, recently travelled to Southeast Asia to engage in some old-fashioned diplomatic arm-twisting, pressuring both Thailand and Myanmar to sever their ties to the North Korean regime.
Trump’s more modulated positions on Asia, as distinct from his rhetoric, reflect the influence of seasoned diplomatic professionals at the State Department, such as Yun, as well as the career military men guiding America’s defence and foreign policy, such as Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster.
But once Trump go to the White House, he seemed to learn that he faces the same constraints and regional complexities as his predecessors. He needs China and South Korea to help pressure Pyongyang, and threatening a trade war with either is not a way to promote cooperation.
In many areas, particularly in domestic policy, Trump has been a wrecking ball, as he tries to single-handedly reshape American government, policies and politics.
But as he enters the second year of this most unusual presidency, Asians can largely feel relieved. It seems the region has managed to reshape the new American president, more than he has reshaped the region. ■
Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent, is director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre