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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Trump puts on best face to woo Asian hearts and minds

US president's trip through China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines designed to shore up presence

Donald Trump with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang, left, and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte as part of Mr Trump's five-country trip through Asia. Andrew Harnik/AP
Donald Trump with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang, left, and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte as part of Mr Trump's five-country trip through Asia. Andrew Harnik/AP

Donald (the "deal maker") Trump worked hard to justify his reputation during his recent swing through East Asia by urging Japan to buy more US armaments and by signing some US$250 billion of US-China business "deals" in Beijing.

The 10-day Trump Odyssey, encompassing visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, was always intended be more about show than substance. It was designed to impress upon Asia the fact that the US is still the premier power in the region despite China's rise as an economic and geopolitical giant.

In particular, Mr Trump used his visit to Tokyo - the first stop on his tour - to make it clear that the US-Japan relationship is "rock solid" and that no other power should doubt that. The message was aimed at China and North Korea although neither was mentioned by name. As the veteran Japan analyst Jesper Koll tells The National: "Trump believes in speaking loudly and carrying a big stick."

The fact that three giant US aircraft carriers - accompanied by a flotilla of Japanese and other maritime vessels - were dispatched to seas in the East Asia region during Mr Trump's visit served to reinforce the message to Asia in general and to China and North Korea in particular that the US is not to be messed with.

To the relief of the South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the US leader had toned down somewhat the harsh rhetoric he used in Japan against North Korea in Japan by the time he arrived in Seoul. South Koreans had feared that a repeat of Mr Trump's threat to rain "fire and fury" on the North could inflame its leader Kim Jong-un and touch off a local missile attack, or even a Third World War.

Likewise in Beijing, Mr Trump went out of his way to flatter the Chinese president Xi Jinping and even suggested that China had been "smart" to rack up huge trade surpluses by taking advantage of what he believes were the weak and faulty trade policies of his predecessors in the White House.

After being granted an audience in Japan with Emperor Akihito and receiving red-carpet treatment all round, the US leader was treated in Beijing to a banquet in the Great Hall of the People and to a pageantry-rich visit to the Chinese capital's Forbidden City. The Japanese and Chinese were clearly out to honour Mr Trump and he was anxious to bolster his tarnished image in the US.

But when it comes to practising what he preaches in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal - which seems to describe Mr Trump's attitude toward US foreign and economic policymaking - his performance fell short in Asia, analysts say. He simply urged Japan to cut its trade surplus with the US but said nothing further about the new bilateral trade deal he has been demanding from Tokyo.

He did get agreement from Japan to buy more arms from the US - the details of which were not disclosed - and he even suggested that if these purchases included US-made ballistic missile interceptors that Japan could "shoot down over-flying North Korean missiles bound for Guam or the US". However, the defence analyst Lance Gating believes that is all but impossible, saying that by the time a missile was over Japan, it would be "very high and moving extremely fast". A missile destroyer would need "to be in just the right position to intercept", he says and for it to succeed in taking a missile out would be a "pretty low percentage shot".

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In China, where he was accompanied by a cohort of leading US businessmen, Mr Trump boasted of having signed billions of dollars worth of deals in just a couple of days. But many of these "deals", which were unveiled at a special signing ceremony in Beijing, took the form of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) rather than set-in-stone contracts. These included a $38bn agreement between Boeing and China Aviation Supplies Holding Company, a $5bn Goldman Sachs deal with China Investment Corporation and a $10bn MOU between Ford Trading Company and Ford Motor (China).

But in many cases the deals were already "in the works" before Mr Trump's visit, according to David Dollar a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. China did offer to open its markets wider - including those in the services sector - to the US but few details were revealed.

Mr Trump also held talks with Mr Jinping about the multibillion-dollar US trade deficit with China.

China's trade surplus – an economic measure of a positive balance of trade, where a country's exports exceed its imports – expanded by 12.2 per cent in October from the previous year, reaching $26.6bn, according to Chinese customs data.

The total surplus rose to a staggering $223bn in the first 10 months of this year.

Despite the relative lack of hard bargains on the trade front, Mr trump was still able to present his Asia tour as a "win-win situation", according to Mr Koll, who heads the investment firm Wisdom Tree, Japan, in Tokyo. He was able to claim deals that were of direct benefit to US companies and their workers. The "message was to his home base", Mr Koll says.

Coinciding with Mr Trump's tour of Asia, negotiators from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) meeting in Danang, Vietnam were scrambling to save what had been designed as, until the US president pulled America out of it at the start of this year, a 12-nation trade pact. Japan remains determined to salvage the accord if possible and to lure Washington back in again.

"It is interesting how focused Japan is on working on a multilateral agreement ... but with Japan and not America taking leadership," Mr Koll says. "Japan, together with Australia and New Zealand, is trying to establish a framework for Asian trade and Asian intellectual property. Japan under [the prime minister Shinzo] Abe has the confidence to try and do this without the US."

But Mr Trump is unlikely to buy this idea, Mr Koll adds. "Why would he? Number one, [a TPP minus the US] would not get very far and number two we have to consider the bigger picture of the US-Japan and China triangle.

"What matters and here is that Trump is playing from a position of strength. He is the 'best friend' of Mr Abe but he is also going out of his way to claim that he is best friends with Mr Xi."

The US cannot play it both ways by joining the TPP, which excludes China, he points out.

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