BEIJING - American President Donald Trump was the centre of attraction during his 12-day visit to Asia last week, given a welcome replete with pomp and ceremony in Japan, South Korea and China.
But by the time he left for home on Tuesday, political experts and observers chorused that it was Chinese President Xi Jinping who was the leading man, whose influence had been enhanced further.
Perhaps bowled over by the stunning show of welcome, including the “state visit plus” he received in China, Mr Trump declared his trip a tremendous success.
Analysts, however, said he returned to Washington without fulfilling his agenda, which is convincing Asia’s leaders the US is still committed to the Asia Pacific.
This is plain in the cool reception given to his ‘America First’ trade speech at the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, where he vowed the US would “no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression”.
It was driven home further when Mr Trump opted to skip the East Asia Summit, seen by most as a symbolic but important litmus test of US interest in the region.
Mr Xi, on the other hand, used his Apec address to renew China’s commitment to globalisation and support for free trade, in yet another sign he was willing to take up the leadership mantle the US had abandoned.
“The tune Trump sang was just not what Asian leaders wanted to hear, compared to Xi’s message of multi-lateral cooperation,” Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University told The Straits Times.
Cornell University analyst Annelise Riles said the trip was “a key moment in the decline of US power in the Asia-Pacific region”.
Prof Riles pointed especially to the revival of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal by the other 11 signatories, saying it was a rejection of Mr Trump’s - and thus America’s - worldview.
“Despite all the red carpet, Trump’s own agenda was largely ignored,” she added.
Apart from being an “isolated bystander” as other leaders pressed on with free trade talks in Danang and Manila, Mr Trump also failed to extract concrete commitments from China to intensify pressure on North Korea, said the dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Dr Joseph Liow.
What he secured from China - more than US$250 billion in trade deals - points to the need for a big-figure “win” he can take home to his voters, said Professor Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University.
Facing significant domestic pressure, President Trump’s aim was for a breakthrough he can take home to show his prowess as a deal maker that closes deals, said Prof Su.
“To him, this trip to Asia was an outstanding success because he would be able to say he secured a raft of deals here that are beneficial to Americans.”
But critics noted the package consisted of many non-binding agreements that may not materialise, and that Mr Trump failed to secure what American investors really wanted: structural reform to the bilateral trade ties that can bring about lasting change, like greater access to the Chinese market.
“We still need to focus on levelling the playing field, because U.S. companies continue to be disadvantaged doing business in China,” Mr William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told Reuters news agency.
In sum, such middling results from a trip that was supposed to reaffirm US commitment to the region means Asia’s leaders need to reassess Asia Pacific’s balance of power.
Said Prof Shi: “China’s global prestige has clearly emerged a notch above that of the US in this round of interactions,” he said.
“In terms of national strength the US is still ahead of China, but the last two weeks is a good indication that change is gathering momentum,” he added.