MANILA, Philippines – In Trumpian terms, President Donald Trump’s Asia tour was a rousing success.
He was warmly welcomed by his closest friend in the region, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with a round of celebrity golf and he got to give a prime-time address to the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea. He was welcomed to Beijing by Chinese President Xi Jinping with a “state visit plus" that featured an opera performance inside the Forbidden City followed by a lavish state dinner complete with a video featuring Trump’s granddaughter singing in Mandarin. And to cap it off, Trump was serenaded by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
“It was a red carpet like nobody, probably has ever received,” Trump bragged in Manila. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country.”
And yet, as he flies home to Washington, former and Asia experts were talking about how China came out ahead – and they noted he is returning to Washington largely empty-handed.
“The principal takeaway from Trump’s big Asia trip: virtually zero progress on any issue that matters to the Americans,” Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer wrote in a report. “Ultimately, that’s the biggest win for China.”
After a marathon series of bilateral meetings and photo-ops, the president failed to extract major new concessions from Asian leaders on his twin goals of arresting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and rebalancing America’s trade relationship with China and other nations in the region—and made next to no public reference to human rights, Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea or other touchy issues that have been raised in previous presidential visits.
While both China and Russia reaffirmed their existing commitments to crack down on North Korea, neither country used the opportunity of Trump’s visit to commit to any new measures, like backing up an offer Trump made during his Seoul speech to start a direct dialogue with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
And none of the nations Trump visited pledged to launch new bilateral trade negotiations with the U.S. –while 11 countries reached an agreement while Trump was in the region to bring the Trans-Pacific Partnership into force without the United States, which withdrew from the deal at Trump’s order immediately after he took office in January.
Trump nevertheless claimed an overall win as he prepared to head home.
“We’ve had a tremendously successful trip. Tremendous amounts of work was done on trade, not only on the deals — and we have at least $300 billion worth of deals, but that will be, I think, way triple that number in a fairly short period of time,” Trump said Tuesday in Manila, his final stop of the trip.
More important than the unconfirmed dollar figure, the president said, was the message he conveyed throughout his trip that “the United States is open for trade, but we want reciprocal trade.” He reiterated his regular criticism of past administrations, saying his predecessors allowed the U.S. to be taken advantage of on the world economic stage.
Trump said his five-nation trip had also strengthened U.S. relationships, noting especially that ties with the Philippines, which Trump said were “horrible” under President Barack Obama, had been repaired.
“We all worked hard. But I think the fruits of our labor are going to be incredible,” Trump said. “Whether it’s security of our nations, whether it’s security of the world, or whether it’s trade. And it’s going to really amount to a lot.”
Trump repeated when pressed later by reporters aboard Air Force One to identify the biggest accomplishments of the trip that the administration has convinced many of the countries on the trip to buy U.S. equipment to improve their domestic security.
The president, who cast the purchases as a win for American workers, upped his initial estimate, saying that he thought the $300 billion total “is going to be quadrupled very quickly, so that’s over a trillion dollars’ worth of stuff.”
He also focused on his relationship-building efforts. “I think we made a lot of progress, just in terms of relationship,” Trump said. “I think we have done a really fantastic job.”
Earlier Tuesday, he tweeted: “Made many good friends!”
White House aides said that building stronger relationships with key Asian countries was one of the major goals of the journey, and they joined the president in painting the trip as an unbridled success. At its core, the aides insisted, the five-country Asia tour gave the president an opportunity to improve ties with Xi and other key Asian leaders, while outlining a more detailed foreign policy vision to the world.
Top advisers traveling with Trump also believe the trip will pay dividends in the coming weeks and months, as the president leverages his relationships to advance his priorities. And they believe Trump sent a clear message to the world that the U.S. is not going to settle for unfair trade deals.
Trump is slated to deliver what he characterized as a “major” post-Asia statement on trade at the White House this week. He is not expected to announce new trade deals with other countries, according to aides, who also doubted the president will unveil stiff tariffs on exports into the United States. Instead, Trump is expected to expand on his calls for “free, fair and reciprocal” trade.
“After my tour of Asia, all Countries dealing with us on TRADE know that the rules have changed. The United States has to be treated fairly and in a reciprocal fashion. The massive TRADE deficits must go down quickly!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday afternoon before departing from Manila.
But Trump’s critics fear the president has been blinded by the constant flattery. And they are aghast that the president didn’t strike a stronger tone with China. Trump neatly avoided confronting world leaders with spotty human rights records and he opted not to blame Xi for the U.S.-China trade imbalance, instead putting the responsibility at the feet of previous administrations.
He even seemed to develop a rapport with Duterte, who has launched a bloody war on drugs that has resulted in thousands of deaths, at one point patting the authoritarian leader on the knee and later touting their “great relationship.”
“Trump delivered too many mixed messages between the fawning over Xi Jinping, America First, and the free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Ely Ratner, who served as an adviser to Vice President Joe Biden on Asia. “This will leave the region confused about the direction of U.S. policy, contrary to the central goal of reassuring the region about the U.S. commitment to Asia.”
Trump aides said privately that the president made a strategic decision to win over the leaders by playing nice, largely casting aside his sometime-acerbic personality in exchange for the trappings of a diplomat.
Trump’s rhetoric throughout the trip contrasted sharply with his remarks during the campaign and even in the early days of his presidency. During his inaugural address in January, Trump outlined a protectionist vision: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
In Asia, the president signaled his openness to global collaboration.
“Today, I am here to offer a renewed partnership with America to work together to strengthen the bonds of friendship and commerce between all of the nations of the Indo-Pacific, and together, to promote our prosperity and security,” the president said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, Vietnam.
As Trump crisscrossed Asia, the administration sought to show progress was being made.
After Trump’s swing through China, the White House released a statement noting that Beijing and Washington agreed to fully implement United Nations sanctions on North Korea and “reaffirmed their commitment to achieving the goal of full, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But neither of those measures amounted to a breakthrough, and they largely echoed China’s previous statements.
The White House did make several key announcements, including hundreds of millions in business agreements with China. But those agreements were largely non-binding and did not address Trump’s broader complaints about the trade imbalance between the U.S. and China.
Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged to reporters during the trip that the U.S. had made little progress with China on trade.
“I would say there’s a lot of work left to do to progress trade to the point that it will achieve President Trump’s objectives and our objective, which is to rebalance what has really occurred over many years, this trade imbalance itself,” Tillerson said in Beijing.
Asked by a reporter on Tuesday if the Asia trip had been a success, Tillerson ignored the question and said simply, “Thank you.”