Trump in Asia: Ceremony over substance

Trump will return to Washington with no concessions on North Korea, trade or any other issue on the Sino-US agenda

 

Donald Trump’s visit to Asia has, so far at least, not brought war with North Korea closer. Nor has it damaged relations with China or offended any United States allies. By the lamentably low standards of the current White House, that makes it something of a success. To relief in Japan and South Korea, Trump toned down his counter-productive belligerence on North Korea and even, contradicting his own previous position, held out the possibility of future talks aimed a agreeing “a deal” over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. In Beijing, where he met President Xi Jinping, newly strengthened after a Communist Party Congress that consolidated his power, Trump focused on urging China to increase pressure on Kim Jong-un to abandon the nuclear programme.

Trump overstates China’s ability to influence Pyongyang, although he is correct in assuming that no international action against the rogue regime can work without strong support from Beijing, which accounts for the vast bulk of North Korean trade. In addition to pressing the Chinese in North Korea, he stressed US misgivings over the bilateral trade imbalance and Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

China pulled out all the stops for Trump on what Xi called a “state visit plus”, with opera, military parades and dinner in the Forbidden City all on the itinerary, but the pomp and ceremony only served to mask the absence of substantive progress on any key issue. Xi, like other world leaders, has learned that outrageous flattery is the way to Trump’s heart; predictably, given Trump’s fondness for strongmen, he went out of his way to shower praise on the Chinese leader. His campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator is apparently forgotten.

The bottom line, however, is that Trump will return to Washington with no concessions on North Korea, trade or any other issue on the Sino-US agenda. Even the $253 billion in bilateral business deals agreed this week are mostly tentative agreements that may not be fulfilled. The supposed deal-maker is going home empty-handed.

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