Donald Trump exceeded low expectations, but Xi Jinping made greater impact, say US analysts

US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh gives his views on US President Donald Trump's recent Asia tour, from Asian and American media coverage to the implications of the trip for US relations with Asia.
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - US-based Asia analysts have generally given President Donald Trump's first Asia trip a passing grade, but said he was outshone by China's President Xi Jinping.

Mr Trump exceeded expectations - but "only because those expectations were so low," said Ms Shannon Hayden, associate director of the Southeast Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"In his mind, he probably thinks the trip went very well - much pomp and pageantry, lots of attention on him, and opportunities to present his messages strongly," she told The Straits Times over e-mail.

However, she added: "He should not mistake the flattery of his Asian hosts with acquiescence, deference, or even respect."

Analysts said the fact that the 11 remaining signatories of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) decided to pursue a new version of the trade pact without the US was a harbinger of an era of regional free trade architecture minus the US. The US pulled out of the TPP in January.

"Other countries are moving on and sending a message that the US will not derail efforts they believe are in their interest," Ms Hayden wrote.

Mr James Keith, Managing Director of consultancy McLarty Associates and a former diplomat to China, said Mr Trump had strengthened the US' alliances in North-east Asia with this visit.

But he added that Mr Trump looked to have ceded leadership on the economic front, offering little to succeed the TPP or to rival "the Chinese exercise of soft power through financing and construction of infrastructure in the region".

 

Ms Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the CSIS told The Straits Times, said Mr Trump mostly stuck to his script and the messages in South Korea were particularly well received.

She noted that Mr Trump's performance was the "weakest" at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in Danang, Vietnam. "Trump doesn't have a credible economic policy. Countries in the TPP who don't already have a bilateral FTA with the US appear not to want one," she said.

Chinese President Xi's embrace of globalisation and his "community of common destinies" resonated more than Mr Trump's "America First," she added.

Dr Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College in Washington, told The Straits Times that the US had a chance to "emphatically state" it was leading the region, providing collective goods and defending the rules-based order.

"(But) Trump did nothing of the sort. It was totally transactional. It was a yet another win for China."

Dr Richard Cronin, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Centre's South-east Asia Programme, wrote in an e-mail:"Even if the President's trip was more successful than many expected, one can only wonder how many in Asia were left troubled at the seeming incoherence of US policy and anxious about their country's and their region's future."