Trump’s embrace of Asia’s red carpet overshadows results

01:02 - Source: CNN
Trump joins world leaders for ASEAN handshake

Story highlights

Trump wrapped his 5-country Asia trip on Tuesday

"This has been a very fruitful trip for us, and in all fairness, for many other nations," Trump said

Manila CNN —  

Shortly before President Donald Trump was set to arrive on stage to address a room of chief executives gathered at an oceanfront resort in Vietnam, organizers received an urgent call from American officials.

The orange backdrop that had been used for every previous speaker at the economic summit would need to be changed for Trump, the officials demanded, fearing the US President would disappear if he stood in front of the electronic, apricot-hued screen.

When Trump did appear at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Friday, the orange was gone, replaced by a dark blue backdrop blaring in large white letters, “H.E. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States.” H.E., short for His Excellency, was a description organizers bestowed on Trump and his peers.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang upon arrival for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit

As Trump toured Asia for nearly two weeks, it was the staging that mattered as much as the policy, whether it was his tour of the Forbidden City at dusk or his address inside the soaring National Assembly hall in Seoul.

Grand welcome

A year after gaining entry into the exclusive club of world leaders, Trump is reaping the benefits on the global stage, all with an eye toward keeping up appearances as a hard-nosed negotiator. 

“It has been an incredible 12 days,” Trump said in Manila on Tuesday as he ducked out of yet another leaders’ summit to make an early departure from Asia. “I have made a lot of friends at the highest levels.”

Yet his grand welcome into foreign capitals, where flattery is a central piece of the pomp and pageantry that follows him, has done little to answer the question of what his travels have actually delivered for the United States.

The president’s “America First” agenda has left the US on the sidelines of key agreements on trade and climate change, the most recent of which is the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

His decision to pull the United States from the landmark 12-country trade deal didn’t stop it. With Trump nearby this week, the 11 countries took steps to move forward on an agreement of their own, raising the stakes of Trump’s go-it-alone gamble as a Pacific power.

Even as Trump made vocal calls for go-it-alone protectionism on trade, he sought to rally Asian allies to work together in countering North Korea – a move that has further muddied his policy toward Asia.

If Trump was a tough negotiator on the trip, starting to make good on his pledge to close trade imbalances, it took place behind closed doors. In public view, he seemed far more intent on giving and receiving praise.

Trump asked his aides to look into whether he could deliver a prime time address from the White House when he returned to Washington, officials told CNN, a reflection of his buoyant mood as the trip neared its end.  

“This has been a very fruitful trip for us and in all fairness for many other nations,” Trump said during his final full day of talks in Manila. “It’s a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country. I’m very proud of that.”

Finding chemistry

Since taking office, Trump has been feted with sword dancers in Riyadh, wined and dined on the second landing of the Eiffel Tower, and this week sat for hours inside the Forbidden City with his powerful Chinese counterpart.

As he shuttled between Asian capitals, more important than any particular policy or doctrine has been Trump’s insistence that leaders here like him, and that their “chemistry” be deployed to resolve the continent’s lingering trade disputes with the United States. 

But how, when, and under what terms Trump’s budding friendships will yield results for the United States remains largely unknown, as the longest presidential trip to Asia in a quarter century concludes and Trump returns to Washington.

“My feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one,” Trump told Xi Jinping, the powerful Chinese President, during one of their many face-to-face talks last week at the cavernous Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square. “As we said, there’s great chemistry.”

Xi declined to return the warmth, reminding Trump via a stern-voiced female translator the US and China will continue to have their differences but that “the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin also declined to expound upon the possible chemistry he could enjoy with Trump, which the US President insisted this week would flourish if the relationship was free from the election meddling cloud. He maintained he possessed a unique ability to develop those ties.

“There is a talent to that,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as it lingered in the sky an extra hour so Trump wouldn’t arrive in Hanoi too early. “I think Putin and I – President Putin and I – would have a great relationship, and that would be great for both countries.”

As Trump flew away, Putin stayed behind in Da Nang, delivering a commentary on the St. Petersburg economic forum and the nuclear START treaty. He held a televised news conference, which Trump did not, but he did not address his personal warmth – or lack thereof – with Trump.

Trump’s national security aides have characterized the President’s use of flattery as a means to extract concessions from his counterparts, particularly in isolating North Korea.

“‘You’re a strong man – you can, I’m sure, solve this for me,’” was how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described Trump’s message to Xi while briefing reporters in Beijing.

The results of that strategy remain to be seen. In the meantime, Trump’s messages of cooperation on North Korea, and nativism on trade, have offered a confusing vision of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, a dramatic break from generations of history and policy here.

Small-scale announcements

Trump’s stops in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing were salted with small-scale announcements, including new Japanese sanctions on North Korea and the signing of business agreements between American firms and China.

And while he teased forward to a “major” statement on trade when he returns to the White House on Wednesday, the President departed Asia without any major new economic or security agreements, much less the types of accords on climate change or human rights that were negotiated by his predecessors.

He focused far more attention on billions of dollars in American investment in the region – some new, some already underway – as the major take away from his trip.

That is not to say that Asian leaders gathered for summits this week did not achieve results. Instead, their discussions were held without Trump, and their announcements excluded the United States.

In Vietnam, the heads of 11 countries announced they were moving forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the 12-nation agreement negotiated under Trump’s predecessor – without the United States.

It was an echo of Trump’s first participation in a major global summit in May. Closeted on a Sicilian cliffside with his G7 counterparts, Trump declined to sign on to their determination on climate change – a go-it-alone stance that’s persisted in Asia.

“I think when historians write about this trip, it’s not going to be about the Putin comments, it’s not going to be about the distractions back here in the United States. It’s going to be that the United States unilaterally, essentially, has abdicated. We have taken ourselves out of the future of Asia to a large degree,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Alliances are full-fledged, 360-degree relationships,” Haass said. “So I think when the history is written it won’t just be about China stepping forward. This will be yet again the United States stepping back.”

Careful planning

Before his departure, Trump’s swing through Asia was cast partly as a test of endurance for a 71-year-old commander in chief who much prefers his own bed to foreign hotel rooms. Careful planning by his aides – including periodic spans without anything scheduled and at least 10 hours at night between the end of dinner and the start of meetings – helped alleviate fatigue.

At moments his schedule appeared light to a fault. His flight from Da Nang to Hanoi left an hour early, and had to stall in the air so greeters on the ground could get into place.

Before he departed, American officials advised Asian planners to keep overly exotic foods off the menu. His first meal in Japan was a hamburger with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Chinese hosts served western versions of traditional cuisine during a state banquet.

Yet he gamely played along with the ritual of regional dress for leaders attending the Asian economic summits, trading his suit and tie for a blue untucked Vietnamese shirt in Da Nang and an oatmeal-colored Filipino shirt known as a barong.

By his final day in Manila, Trump bore few outward signs of exhaustion, and advisers went to great lengths to insist he wasn’t tired, even if those aboard his traveling contingent happily acknowledged they were. 

He enthusiastically participated in the cross-body handshake leaders perform yearly at the ASEAN summit, his mouth hanging open in a contorted smile. And he departed Asia without vomiting on a counterpart’s lap – the low bar for presidential endurance set by George H.W. Bush, who fell ill at the end of his marathon trip through Asia in 1992.

But if Trump demonstrated an eagerness for spending long hours with the men (and they are all men) who lead key allies here, he made little time for the countries’ citizens, a break from precedent for American leaders abroad.

Then-Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama often mingled with regular – albeit handpicked – representatives of the population they were visiting, delivering speeches or taking tours outside their meetings with leaders.

Trump’s weekend visit to Vietnam coincided with Veteran’s Day back in the United States. He is of the Vietnam era, but did not serve, yet he has made a strong connection to veterans. At his hotel in Da Nang, he met briefly with a handful of veterans, but did not venture out to see any sights of the war.

If he had, Trump could have seen photographs of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on the walls of the Hoa Lo Prison, the site that became known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where Sen. John McCain and other Americans were held captive during the Vietnam War.

Instead, Trump found himself in another sparring match with McCain. After Trump said that he believed Putin’s denial about Russian interference in the 2016 election, McCain seized on the moment. He said Putin did not have American interests at heart, adding: “To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”

When asked about it on Sunday morning, Trump took the rare step of not personally attacking McCain. He left town hours later, as tourists lined up to see the site of the prison where McCain’s black-and-white photograph hung on the wall from his five years of captivity.

Nuclear threat

Trump’s restraint in responding to McCain reflected a largely placid attitude in Asia, even toward leaders with whom he’s feuded. His talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in proceeded without a major dust-up, despite their disagreement on whether talks with Pyongyang are wise.

The only public evidence of Trump’s temper came after a scuttled visit to the heavily fortified border that separated North and South Korea. Heavy fog stymied his plans for a symbolic stare-down of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the heavily fortified border that separates North and South Korea.

Unable to provide his warnings to Pyongyang the symbolic heft he desired, Trump fumed at aides as they turned back.

Beyond his promised deals on trade, the true test of Trump’s success here will be his ability to rally regional coordination in confronting Kim Jong Un. In talks this week, leaders appeared to present a unified front but offered little by way of specifics in plans to ease the nuclear tensions.

Trump is confident the personal relationships he spent so many hours developing here will pay off eventually in isolating North Korea.

But he returns to Washington after a trip chock full of photo-ops without one thing he wanted: a picture at the DMZ.