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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

The report card is in ... Trump's Asia trip has been a triumph

Compared with the ill-starred tour of at least one of his predecessors, the US president has done well  abroad, writes Sholto Byrnes

Donald Trump's Asia tour has featured a number of public relations successes, including this thumbs up photo op with Cambodia's Hun Sen. Samrang Pring / Reuters
Donald Trump's Asia tour has featured a number of public relations successes, including this thumbs up photo op with Cambodia's Hun Sen. Samrang Pring / Reuters

It was supposed to be a disaster. Donald Trump’s Asia tour – at 12 days, the longest since George HW Bush’s in 1991 – was predicted to provide an embarrassment of missteps, unintentional offence, undermining of old alliances and diminution of America’s standing in the world.

True, Mr Trump didn’t quite get the hang of the Asean handshake on Monday, leading to some awkward photographs when he and his fellow leaders were crossing arms and gripping hands at the 10 country association’s summit in Manila. But that was good-humoured. Mr Trump did also call North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “short and fat” in a tweet on Sunday. Even that message had an upside, however. “I try so hard to be his friend,” continued the president, “and maybe someday that will happen!”

It’s an unusual approach to diplomacy, for sure, but if the two leaders could one day be friends, it would indeed be, as Mr Trump said, “very, very nice”.

Apart from that, there has been no desperate foot-in-mouth moment. The US president has not shown up his country or himself. On the contrary, he has been a polite and complimentary guest in all the states he has visited. He has reassured South Korea by indicating his willingness to be less confrontational, both with Pyongyang over the nuclear issue and with Seoul over trade. He was warm and effusive in Beijing, and showered praise on the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte for hosting the Asean summit and Malaysia’s Najib Razak for coordinating US-Asean dialogue relations.

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Indeed, whatever outstanding differences there may be between America and countries in the region, it is unarguable that on a personal level Mr Trump gets on better with the leaders he has met – from President Xi Jinping, to Mr Duterte and Mr Najib, and even Cambodia’s Hun Sen (with whom he was photographed grinning and flashing a thumbs-up) – than any president from the Democrats would have done. Personal relationships matter, and in this area Mr Trump has excelled.

Meanwhile, progress was made on other fronts. The Trans-Pacific Partnership 11 came closer to fixing the agreement so that it can still come into effect without the US. Asean and China agreed to start talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Mr Trump can take credit for neither development – his offer to mediate in the complex maritime disputes in the South China Sea was well-meaning but no one took it seriously – but equally neither has the US under his administration been a spoiler.

When Mr Trump announced that he would be withdrawing from the TPP some assumed the agreement would collapse. Instead it is going ahead anyway. It turns out that the “exceptional nation” is not so “indispensable” – as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright put it – after all.

Also noteworthy was Mr Trump’s revival of the “quad”, in which senior officials from the US, Japan, Australia and India agreed to cooperate in forging a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. For all the talk of the US abandoning its position in the world, that at least indicated it is not disappearing. It is, perhaps, just approaching East Asia and beyond in a different way.

This is a point that critics are missing. Mr Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney attacked Mr Trump for letting China “dictate press access” – that is, not allowing questions - when he made a joint appearance in Beijing with Mr Xi. “The Chinese try this every time,” tweeted Mr Carney. “It’s a test of will and principle.” Agreeing to China’s request, he said, was “an embarrassing capitulation.” CNN editorialised – in what was ostensibly a news report – that Mr Trump had forfeited “a potential opportunity to push Chinese leader Xi Jinping to face the press.”

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But maybe Mr Trump, who has no love for the media himself, had no wish to do so. Human rights campaigners cannot fail to be aware by now that they have no like mind in the current occupant of the White House (and nor particularly in his secretary of state). Why would Mr Trump want to force Mr Xi to answer questions that he would find embarrassing or offensive? The attack on the US president berated him for not doing something he most likely didn’t want to do in the first place – as is surely similarly indicated by his refusal to condemn Mr Duterte’s war on drugs, instead hailing his “great relationship” with the Philippines’ leader.

More on the money was Mike Chinoy of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California, whom the Washington Post quoted as saying: “Trump seems very comfortable with strongmen. It’s not just that he won’t criticise Duterte. I wouldn’t be surprised if he patted him on the back.”

Mr Trump is being lambasted by those who expect an American president to put human rights and democracy promotion at the top of his or her agenda. Neither are priorities for Mr Trump – and they are not exactly top of the list for many of the leaders the US president has been meeting with over the last few days.

So for both sides – and, I would argue, objectively speaking – Donald Trump’s Asia tour has been quite a success. What one commentator refers to as “the parade of the aghast” will of course disagree. But can even they not admit that while the bar of expectations may have been set low, the US president has unquestionably cleared it? Compared with the elder Mr Bush’s ill-starred tour – which ended with the then president being sick in the Japanese prime minister’s lap – Mr Trump has done very well. The fact that he will be the first to boast about it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give him credit when it’s due.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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