President Xi has taken the lead, say experts

US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.
US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. PHOTO: REUTERS

United States 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 were saying Chinese President Xi Jinping was ahead, with his influence enhanced further.

Mr Trump declared his trip a tremendous success but analysts said he returned home without fulfilling his agenda - convincing Asia's leaders that the US is still committed to the Asia-Pacific.

This is plain in the cool reception given to his ''America First'' speech on trade at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.

It was driven home further when he skipped the East Asia Summit, seen by most as a symbolic but important litmus test of US interest in the region - although he did address its leaders at a lunch before that.

Mr Xi, on the other hand, used his Apec address to renew China's commitment to globalisation and support for free trade, in 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 with Xi's message of multilateral 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''. She pointed especially to the revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact that Mr Trump withdrew from.

He also failed to extract concrete commitments from China to intensify pressure on North Korea, said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies dean Joseph Liow.

What he secured from China - more than US$250 billion (S$339 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, Mr Trump's aim was for a breakthrough he can take home to show his prowess as a dealmaker that closes deals, Prof Su added.

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 wanted: structural reform to the bilateral trade ties that can bring about lasting change, like greater access to the Chinese market.

Such middling results mean Asia's leaders may need to reassess the region's balance of power. ''China's global prestige has clearly emerged a notch above that of the US,'' said Prof Shi. ''The last two weeks is a good indication that change is gathering momentum''.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'President Xi has taken the lead, say experts'. Subscribe