Commentary | Coquetry in the Far East

Commentary | Coquetry in the Far East

William Truban.jpg

William Truban

- American Political Affairs Specialist, China Affairs Specialist at The International Scholar

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Go, called Weiqi in Mandarin, is a game played in East Asia and considered an oriental equivalent to Chess. Unlike Chess, Go does not focus on seizing parts of the board and successfully eliminating pieces in a tactical manner. Instead, the whole game is built around a strategic effort to encircle and limit the movements of an opponent. Little pieces are placed carefully with encirclement and relative advantage being the primary goal. Henry Kissinger is a known fan of the game and describes much of his analysis in his book On China in terms of the game.[i] The mindset and political culture often seen in East Asia is in line with the principles of the game: non-confrontational, strategic, relative, and forward thinking. That same game was being played in a grander scheme as Donald Trump made his first trip to Asia.

Trump stands with World Leaders including Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping (Second from Front Right and Second from Front Left, respectively). Courtesy of Andrew Oh at

Trump stands with World Leaders including Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping (Second from Front Right and Second from Front Left, respectively). Courtesy of Andrew Oh at

This trip was guaranteed to be a little awkward due to Trump’s twitter habits, economic nationalist rhetoric, and the sudden departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership he ordered shortly after taking office. However, we came to find that, while it was not the worst that could have happened, the trip remained of a rather poor quality. It should be kept in mind that Mr. Trump’s trips are often held to lower standards than previous presidents, with coherent speeches and a lack of twitter bashing being considered a success. It is vital that a new normal of mediocrity not be developed when analyzing policy and political actions and this author will not feed into such normalization efforts. The quality of the trip can be summed up by analyzing his over-emphasis on personal relationships and his rejection of multilateralism.

The first issue that resulted in a disconnect between the thoughts of the President and the actual paradigms that exist between all these different countries is his obsession with personal relationships. While none can deny that personal relationships are an important element in the international community, such dealings cannot be solely based on those relationships. Friendships based on power can be quite frail and deteriorate faster than expected with magnified consequences. However, Mr. Trump has taken the personalist approach and in turn was met with flattery during his Trip to Asia as President Xi Jinping, President Rodrigo Duterte, President Moon Jae-in, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe schmoozed as best they could. This suggests Donald Trump’s opinion “changes often because of the variability of views, from which a low estimation of him arises.”[ii] While these efforts were spectacularly fluffed, their supposed successes were founded on little else than wishful thinking.

However, Mr. Trump fell for it hook, line, and sinker. For the Japanese and Koreans, their efforts were geared towards avoiding any deterioration in relations with the United States whom they would prefer to have on their side in order to both balance China and ensure security against North Korea. For the South Koreans in particular, the goal was for Trump to not say anything that would antagonize the North Koreans while in Seoul. Fortunately, such a crisis never came to fruition. However, this did not change the dynamic that exists between the United States and those two countries which is becoming increasingly marked by tension. The stay in Beijing proved similar as Trump lauded his host President Xi and signed over $250 billion in commercial deals but failed to note that none of those deals are binding. Grandeur is a poor substitute for substance.

Grandeur is a poor substitute for substance.

The surprise meeting with Vladimir Putin also continued this personalist vein of diplomacy. Trump openly sided with Putin over American intelligence agencies about the role of Russia in hacking the 2016 elections. This is a point the Intelligence Community is unified on and it is particularly concerning that Trump allows these personal relationships to overshadow broader realities. The implications are that Trump, at least publicly, trusts a foreign leader more than his own government and very well might be acting in accord with that leader. However, this has not been proven as such at this time but such a disturbing trend of prioritizing this friendship over American priorities and assessments cannot be ignored when analyzing any Putin-Trump interactions.

Similar situations arose in both Vietnam and the Philippines. Senator John McCain rightfully lambasted Trump for his failure to talk about human rights abuses in both countries. Trump seemed to have little to say about President Duterte and his tendency to engage in extrajudicial killings other than the usual blithering praise. At this point, no one is surprised and that demonstrates one of the three failures of this trip.  

Presidents DonaldTrump and Xi Jinping during Trump's trip to Asia. Source:

Presidents DonaldTrump and Xi Jinping during Trump's trip to Asia.

The other issue that arises and has continued to demonstrate its toxicity is the attack on multilateralism that Mr. Trump has been leveling since day one but whose effects became clear with this Grand Asia Trip. Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School has posited that the pressing international issues of the day are those that cannot be solved by one nation alone but by many working in concert. Transnational problems face the world and the issue of international trade was felt to be moving in largely one, multilateral direction until Trump assumed office. It is still moving in that direction but without the same momentum and leadership that was expected.

Economic nationalism has been the hallmark of the Trump Administration and its failure has been sealed by this Grand Asia Trip. While amenable to adopting more bilateral relationships and playing Trump’s game to keep American involvement, multilateralism has become a prevailing force in the Far East as the other 11 nations have moved to form a new Trans-Pacific Partnership without the United States. China has become the advocate for open and free trade by championing the Belt and Road Initiative at the Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership forum, which is rather ironic as it has been castigated for not keeping its promises for its restrictions on Chinese markets. South Korea has been quite reticent about the demands of Mr. Trump to renegotiate the Korean-United States Free Trade Agreement. Japan has demonstrated the same attitude but with more friendliness as the Pence-Aso Talks on a bilateral trade agreement continue. All in all, few in the Pacific seem intrigued by an idea resigned to the dustbin of the last century.

All in all, few in the Pacific seem intrigued by an idea resigned to the dustbin of the last century.

Yet this remains a serious issue as it appears from this last trip that we have attained a more proper understanding as to what Donald Trump views as fair trade. To Donald Trump, fair trade means any and all trade that disproportionately benefits the United States. Full Stop. This mindset was on display when he harped on the $69 billion trade deficit with Japan while in Tokyo and complained that the Japanese do not buy American cars, never mind the theories of consumer surplus and preference. He also made a big deal about Japanese companies needing to manufacture more cars in the United States despite 70% of cars sold in the United States also manufactured in the United States. At one point we even saw Mr. Trump lauding the sale of weapons to Japan and South Korea as efforts that would bring new jobs to the United States, when that is extremely unlikely. While it may have already been a poorly kept secret as to how little President Trump honestly understood about how trade works, its effect on our East Asian neighbors could only have been baffling.

Each of these issues are problematic by themselves. Taken together they demonstrate a growing disparity between the reality of affairs in the Asia Pacific and how the current American administration sees it. Trump’s trip to Asia only made those disparities more distinct. Much like Go, Asia is not a stage for transactionalism. Bilateralism and bellicosity accomplish very little at a great cost when engaging with the region. Asia was once the wealthiest, most populated, and most productive region of the world and it is on course to achieving that status again. However, it is only the first year of the Trump Administration and there are three more to go. The opportunities for growth and stronger relations are bountiful. However, if the Trump Administration’s relations with Asia continue this way, we can be sure the nations of the Asia-Pacific will outmaneuver, circumvent, and render such overtures futile.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Banner Photo Credit:

  1. "Trump en Koi slachtoffer van Fake News" by KoiQuestion, Flickr

Other Source Citation:

  1. [i] Kissinger, Henry. On China. London: Allen Lane, 2011.

  2. [ii] Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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