Trump’s Asia Visit: Behind the Red Carpet Reception


President Donald Trump’s 12-day trip (Nov. 3-14) to five nations in Asia was described as a “tremendous success” and Trump himself said it was “very fruitful.” He pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. He said proudly, “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,”

However, the basic question is about his actual accomplishments during his journey. They could not be measured by the length of the red carpet. The efficacy of international diplomacy should ultimately result in increased welfare of people of the concerned nations.

The US administration seemed to be aiming at certain foreign policy results from the President Trump’s Asian tour, i.e., like strengthening of the US efforts to deter North Korea’s nuclear threat, new bilateral trade relationships that reduce the US trade deficit and selling the administration’s vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

How far are these goals related to the persisting livelihood crisis of the majority working people of Asia? The World Bank’s 2016 report showed that the 766 million people in Asia are extremely poor, living below the poverty line of $1.90 a day and about 33% live in South Asia and 9% live in East Asia and the Pacific are severely hit by poverty. Asia, being the home to nearly half of the world’s poorest people, poverty is an utmost important issue to be addressed.

From this perspective, one could assert that the people of Asia have gained nothing from the tour of the president, who heads the “global superpower.”

Among the five nations, his trip to, Japan and South Korea — US allies — had further strengthened political, business and military relations between them. Trump reassured Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea of US commitment to the relationship. Reality showed that they were mostly moving toward increasing military cooperation among them, which would obviously endanger the peace and security of Asia.

Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike bilateral trade agreements. He said, “We’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade.” These agreements were, forged between the US and foreign companies, which would, actually, benefit the US corporate capital.

During this entire Asia tour, Trump pushed large the US arms deals. In Japan, Trump promoted the sale of ballistic missile defense technology; in South Korea, he urged them for the acquisition of advanced military equipment, from fighter aircraft to reconnaissance systems. In Vietnam, it was reported that Trump asked Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc why his country was not buying more American military equipment. These arms sales were really the potential threat to the stability of the region and would further accelerate military spending of impoverished countries in Asia.

The most critical task of Trump’s trip was to stop North Korea’s ballistic missile program and denuclearize North Korea. The US had stationed three aircraft carriers near North Korea that were “loaded to the maximum with magnificent F-35 and F-18 fighter jets,” appropriately positioned nuclear submarines and carried out joint naval exercises adjacent to the Korean peninsula. The people of Asia are skeptical over this extraordinary display of force and they fear that it could jeopardize the option of negotiations and high-level contacts with North Korean government.

Quite frequently, during the tour, the president highlighted the problem of America’s trade deficit. With China, the US goods and services trade deficit was $309.6 billion in 2016. Trump did not take any meaningful initiatives to address the problem of trade deficit. Instead his previous attacks on china and the so-called “Section 232” investigations by the US Department of Commerce targeting Chinese exports and his willingness to impose countervailing duties on Chinese products would result in trade war. It would spoil the interests of both America and Asia.

The most eagerly anticipated part of the trip was Trump’s speech in Danang, Vietnam, to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which was aimed at promoting free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. However, Trump’s speech was a full-throated appeal to “economic nationalism.”

In contrast, APEC’s 11 member countries declared their commitment to persist with the Trans Pacific Partnership — a multilateral trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

Another setback to the interests of the Asian people was the US administration’s resurrection of its 2007 initiative involving Japan, Australia, US and India known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad.” These four major countries would cooperate to set “Asia’s rules and norms”. During the ASEAN Summit, on the sidelines, a meeting of officials of the four countries was held. Quad’s real aim is to contain China’s economic and military dominance in the region.

Trump met with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the summit and called for the two nations to develop even “deeper and more comprehensive” ties. In actual terms, India was urged to help to realize the US vision of an Indo-Pacific region which would “contain” China’s influence. Notwithstanding, this vision of “the quadrilateral alliance,” the partners in the alliance were never hesitant to have close economic and trade relations with China. While instigating other countries like India to confront China, the US has expanded its trade with China. The US-China trade was $650 billion in 2016 and China is also the largest holder of US debt outside the US, owning $1.2 trillion of the $20.5 trillion federal debt. The US also has large investments in China. During President Trump’s visit to China $250 billion worth of business deals were signed. Similarly, Japan also increased its trade with China.

An Indian left leader, Prakash Karat, former general secretary of the Indian Communist Party, described India’s relation with China: “India is the largest economy in Asia after China and Japan, yet, its trade with China was only $70.8 billion in 2016. This was a 2.1% decline over the previous year. It would be in India’s interest to increase trade and economic ties with China, which is the engine driving the global economy. Yet, instead of acting on enlightened self-interest, India is being used by the United States and its allies to fire at China using its shoulders.”

The people Asia were disappointed over the President Trump’s Asia visit, but President Trump personally benefitted from his Asia tour, as it helped him temporarily escape domestic challenges, given his low approval ratings in the US!

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2017

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