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Leaders at the East Asia Summit, which U.S. President Donald Trump skipped, gather for a photo in Manila on Nov. 14.   © Reuters
Trump's Asian Visit

A post-American Asia looms larger on the horizon

Trump's shift away from multilateral free trade removes key element of US role

| China

Donald Trump's admirably long 12-day Asia trip was a critical opportunity to define his Asia policy, his vision of the future. Unfortunately, both the good and bad news is that he succeeded.

Trump's over-arching theme of "a free and open Indo-Pacific" was shoplifted from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made it a centerpiece of his foreign policy. But for Abe, the meaning of that message is upholding and updating a rules-based order that has facilitated Asia's economic success over the past half century. For Trump, the theme is paired with "America First" -- blowing up the rules-based order the U.S. has been instrumental in creating and enforcing, and replacing it with old-fashioned inter-nation rivalry. Yet Trump appears unaware of that inherent contradiction.

Nonetheless, the first part of the trip was unusually disciplined, tweet-free, and designed to underscore continuity in the U.S. security role and alliances with Japan and South Korea. He successfully stressed the priority of intensifying global pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. On the security side, Trump has boosted the U.S. military presence in the region, something Obama fell short on implementing. But even in Tokyo and Seoul there were undercurrents of trade rifts, with Trump rejecting Abe's pleas for the U.S. to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and admonishing President Moon Jae-in to fix the South Korea-U.S. trade accord to eliminate the American trade deficit.

Despite Trump's strong admonitions of the need to rebalance trade with China, there was no obvious conclusion from the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the status of Sino-U.S. relations, nor on any of the array of difficult issues from North Korea to Chinese industrial policy. Lavishing praise on Xi does not amount to a policy gain. The loudly touted MOUs that could amount to $250 billion in Chinese investment in the U.S. in the coming years may or may not materialize.

The show-stopper for Asians, however, was Trump's remarkable speech to chief executives from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation region in Danang, Vietnam. Trump was seemingly oblivious to the reality that the global and regional trade regime he vilified has been key to Asia's post-World War Two economic success. Instead, the U.S. president complained about unfair trading practices causing U.S. trade deficits and declaring, "we can no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses ... we are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore."

Trump's view of trade defies economics. The measure of "fair and reciprocal trade" he demands is simply whether or not the U.S. has a trade deficit. Never mind that trade deficits reflect macro-economic realities -- savings, investment, consuming more than you produce. While Trump has a point about unfair trading practices, most dramatically in the case of China, which accounts for roughly half of the U.S. global trade deficit, he offers no viable alternative to the current trade system.

This makes his fact-free trashing of the World Trade Organization and the multilateral trade system all the more troubling. "What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, " and "surrender our sovereignty." Trump's sovereignty reference is an attack on the crown jewel of the WTO, its dispute-settling mechanism. He whined that "we have not been treated fairly by the WTO." Yet the U.S. has filed over 100 cases at the WTO, more than any other nation -- and won a large majority of its complaints!

Opening for China

Trump's offer to make only bilateral trade agreements with Indo-Pacific nations not only fell on deaf ears, but raised fears in Asia that the U.S. was, however inadvertently, providing an opening for China to set the regional agenda. We now have Japan moving forward with TPP minus the U.S., and China pushing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In a sign of our times, Asia is moving on without the U.S.

Trump appears to either not understand or reject the fact that the secret sauce, the foundation and legitimacy of U.S. predominance in the Asia-Pacific has been not just the security umbrella that has underpinned stability and facilitated Asia's economic dynamism, but its enforcement of a rules-based economic and political order exemplified by U.S. strategic restraint and open markets.

It is difficult to envision where his "America First" logic -- and call for others in the Indo-Pacific to put their sovereignty first as well -- leads except on a path back the beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the 1930s.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Trump's approach is that he, and many of those around him, appear to live in a pre-1990s time warp, vastly over-estimating U.S. economic and strategic leverage. Whether as a percent of global gross domestic product (roughly 19%) or of global trade (13%) the U.S. relative to rising emerging economies simply carries less weight today. Rather than devising a strategy to adapt U.S. leadership to a post-Western world, Trump seems to pine for the past. The net effect, as I continue to hear from Asian diplomats, is a perception of U.S. retreat in an Asia looking for Washington to counterbalance Beijing.

The impression I get is that many in Asia echo the view expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in regard to U.S.-Europe relations after meetings with Trump: we can no longer "fully rely" on allies.

Trump's decision to skip the East Asia Summit only reinforced doubts about the U.S. in a region where showing up matters. Whether in intra-Asian trade accords like TPP or growing intra-Asian security cooperation (e.g., Japan-India, Japan-Vietnam, India-Vietnam, joint maritime patrols) one can begin to see the feint outlines of an Asia reluctantly considering its own path forward, one that is likely to tilt toward China by default.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.

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Do you live in Asia? How do you feel about Trump visiting the region?

  • Do you believe Trump can make Asia more secure? Tell us why.
  • Who will be the strongest political force in East Asia in 2030? The U.S., China? Another power?
  • How can Asia become more self-sufficient economically, or is the U.S. an indispensable partner?
  • Do you live in Asia?

Please email your answers to us at

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