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Through Lavish Welcomes, Asian Countries Cracked the Trump Code

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 15/11/2017 Paul D. Shinkman

President Donald Trump (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang (L) smile to Vietnamese officials during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.: President Donald Trump and his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang smile during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday. © Luong Thai Linh/AFP/Getty Images President Donald Trump and his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang smile during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday. World leaders flattered and feted President Donald Trump on his recent extended tour through Asia, seemingly cracking the code on how to attain America's attention under his administration. But with a trip that was long on memorable photo ops and short on substantive policy announcements, it's still unclear what either side is getting out of such a strategy.

Trump used language like "magnificent" to describe his reception throughout his Asia tour, perhaps most glowingly the lavish welcome he received in China from President Xi Jinping, who welcomed him with military parades, cheering bands of children and tours through some of China's most grandiose monuments.

"I already had people calling from all parts of the world," Trump said last week of his reception in a country that on the campaign trail he claimed was "raping" the American economy. "They were watching. Nothing you can see is so beautiful."

Trump has boasted that he returned to the U.S. with billions in trade deals – some of which were already under negotiation before he became president – and a broader consensus on how to handle the North Korean threat.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented Trump with custom gold and white hats in the Make America Great Again style to honor what he hoped would be a strengthened alliance with the U.S., before hosting Trump for a steak dinner and a round of golf. Trump described Abe as "wonderful" and touted Japan's pledges to purchase U.S. energy and military equipment.

Even U.S. military leaders, ever conscious of the president's ability to loosen purse strings tied tight by Congress, seemed to catch on to the routine, presenting the commander in chief at Yokota Air Base in Japan with a customized bomber jacket at an impromptu ceremony.

"I don't think anybody would be confused about how to deal with Trump, you have to play to his vanity," says Dimitar Gueorguiev, a China expert with Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

But the extent to which Asian partners and rivals truly feel more cooperative, however, will become evident in the coming months – no matter how graciously they greeted the U.S. president.

"It's very consistent with the culture of these kinds of big, extravagant welcomes, but it also stands in stark contrast to how [President Barack] Obama was treated," Gueorguiev says.

Indeed, Trump's predecessor received a polite but less boisterous welcome during his inaugural visit to China in November 2009, perhaps in part because his trip included a rare town hall in which Obama would go on to publicly criticize the Asian superpower's human rights record.

Relations with Beijing continued to sour throughout Obama's term in office, in part due to his "Asia pivot" that China interpreted – correctly – as an attempt to rally America's traditional allies to counter its economic and military rise. Obama's relationship with China reached a symbolic nadir with a perceived snub to start his final trip in September 2016, this time to a G-20 summit in Hangzhou, where, unlike the arrival of other heads of state, no rolling staircase greeted Air Force One, forcing the president to use an alternative exit in the plane's belly.

Whereas Obama sought to acknowledge and counter China's rise, Trump seems satisfied viewing Beijing as a gatekeeper to Asian issues and a regional power to which he can delegate complex tasks, like denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

China likely got what it wanted from regaling Trump in that the president did not publicly call out its alleged widespread human rights abuses or criticize by name its attempts to claim international territory in the South China Sea and elsewhere as its own – the kind of rhetoric Obama and other presidents espoused that did little to curb Beijing's ambitions but signaled U.S. intentions to its partners and allies. On separate occasions, Trump also met with Vladimir Putin without challenging the Russian president's account that Moscow didn't interfere in the U.S. election, and with Rodrigo Duterte without questioning the Philippine leader's harsh crackdown on the drug trade that has reportedly included extrajudicial killings.

Some observers already see the effect of Trump's new partnership with Xi, in particular. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, an influential, traditionally economic bloc to which neither the U.S. nor China belongs, confirmed Monday that it would begin talks with China regarding a code of conduct to avoid escalation during operations in the disputed South China Sea.

"It's both peculiar but also telling," Gueorguiev says. "It signals that this is a local problem, a regional issue and that the U.S. is not going to be the one who is deciding how it works out. That's strong messaging from the Chinese side, and the ASEAN countries in acknowledging that."

Others believe Trump succeeded in creating new, more transactional interactions between the U.S. and its Asian partners, guided by his stated preference for strong personal relationships with his counterparts, who have visibly learned how to play their part.

"It's clear Trump's focus is traditional security, and trade and investment, and plugging the 'America First' agenda," says Brian Eyler, director of The Stimson Center's Southeast Asia program.

Eyler cites Trump's visit to Vietnam, where he criticized its $30 billion trade deficit with the U.S. and encouraged Vietnam to purchase more American military equipment – an arrangement that has been in the works for years.

"It made the relationship very transactional," Eyler says. "The message was pretty clear there, whereas with past [administrations'] approaches to the Asia-Pacific the scope of issues were much wider."

Trump's apparent susceptibility to flattery brought criticism from seasoned national security leaders over the weekend, who in response to Trump's handling of Putin say the commander in chief has made the path to his heart clear.

Career spy and former CIA Director John Brennan told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that Russia has demonstrated that Trump "can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and to try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint."

Former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who like Brennan stepped down on Inauguration Day, agreed.

"He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that comes with the office," said Clapper, who began his intelligence career in 1963.

Others believe more transpires in private meetings with a president who would rather employ shrewd business tactics than rhetorical diplomacy.

"Trump enjoys pomp and circumstance, that's not surprising. But the notion that's somehow persuasive on affecting foreign policy, that's laughable," says James Carafano, vice president at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to the Trump administration.

Trump prefers to court potential rivals by always offering "an off-ramp," Carafano says, presenting the proverbial carrot for those who may refuse the proverbial stick.

"That's consistent in everything he does, and he doesn't look for opportunities to poke the other person in the face because someday they might want to do a deal," he says. "People often interpret that as bending over backward – to Putin and others. That's not true, because you often miss the subtext."

Still, experts believe Trump's softer rhetoric tacitly allows, perhaps even encourages, a rising sense of authoritarianism in Asia, particular among supposed democracies.

"We're seeing a backslide of democracies and democratic processes play out in Southeast Asia currently, and the U.S. has underplayed the importance of its own role in promoting democratic values through Trump's current style of foreign policy," Eyler says. "It's unique to Trump."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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