President Trump said goodbye to Asia Tuesday, after visiting five countries, attending three international summits and meeting with more than half-a-dozen foreign leaders.
“It’s been a great 12 days,” the president said, capping off the longest overseas trip by a U.S. leader in 25 years.
Trump insisted it was a fruitful journey. Asian leaders staged increasingly elaborate welcome ceremonies, competing to win favor from the U.S. president, who has a showman’s eye for spectacle.
“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably every received,” Trump said. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country.”
Trump extended his trip by one day, in order to attend a summit of East Asian leaders in the Philippines. He’d originally planned to skip the gathering, which analysts warned could have sent a worrisome signal to allies and adversaries already questioning the U.S. commitment to the region.
Trump says he still wants to be a player in Asia, despite his decision to withdraw from a 12-nation trade pact, negotiated under former President Obama.
“I am here to offer a renewed partnership with America,” Trump told a summit meeting in Vietnam over the weekend, “to work together to strengthen the bonds of friendship and commerce between all of the nations of the Indo-Pacific, and together, to promote our prosperity and security.”
Security dominated the first half of the trip, as Trump huddled with leaders in Japan, South Korea and China over how to deal with the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. In Tokyo and Seoul, Trump urged counterparts to buy more military hardware from the United States.
“We make the best military equipment by far,” Trump boasted, during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Selling more fighter jets and missiles, Trump argued, would mean “a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan.”
Trump also urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to use his country’s economic leverage — as North Korea’s largest trading partner — to rein in Kim Jong Un.
After their meeting, Xi reiterated China’s commitment to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But he didn’t promise any additional steps to tighten the screws on Pyongyang.
Trump also renewed his complaints about what he sees as China’s unfair trading practices, including steel dumping, theft of intellectual property, and forcing American companies to share technology as a price of doing business.
There were no apparent concessions from China on those fronts, although Trump and Xi did preside over the signing of commercial contracts for the sale of American soybeans, computer chips, natural gas and aircraft parts.
“China is willing to sign [business] deals all day long, as long as it stays away from industrial policy and the market access issues that they’re seeking to avoid,” said Christopher Johnson, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In Vietnam, Trump told business leaders the United States will no longer take part in multi-national trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. He believes the U.S. can strike better bargains by negotiating with countries one-on-one.
Would-be trading partners aren’t waiting around, though. Trade ministers from the 11 other countries in the TPP announced over the weekend they’d agreed on core principles of a trade deal, without the United States.
Amy Searight, a former Asia policy expert at the Pentagon and State Department, had harsh words for the president’s keynote speech in Vietnam. The address was billed as a vision for the “Indo Pacific” region. But it had a strong nationalistic flavor, filled with grievance that America has been taken advantage of.
“I thought it was a striking abdication of U.S. leadership on the world economic stage,” Searight said in an email. “If there was any doubt about President Trump’s complete disdain for and rejection of the multilateral free trade system that the United States built and maintained for 75 years, this speech erased it.”
To make matters worse, Trump was immediately followed in Vietnam by Chinese President Xi, who drew a standing ovation when he said globalization is irreversible and called for a free-trade zone of the Pacific.
“President Trump has a knack for making China great again,” Searight said.
Trump insists there was more progress on the trading front than might have been visible to those traveling with him.
“After my tour of Asia, all countries dealing with us on trade know that the rules have changed,” Trump tweeted.
“The United States has to be treated fairly and in a reciprocal fashion. The massive trade deficits must go down quickly!”
The president promised to provide a summary of progress on trade at the White House later this week, but only after giving the press corps a day or two to recover.
The last president to attempt such a long overseas journey, George H.W. Bush, was sick and exhausted by the end, and threw up on the Japanese prime minister.
Trump, who’s 71, tried to project an air of vitality throughout his grueling 12-day trip. He joked about that with traveling reporters, who struggled at times to keep up.
“We’ll give you a chance to sleep,” Trump said. “Because the press, I have to tell you, I’m very impressed. You stayed with us. You were able to hang in there. I’m very proud of you.”