President Trump used his historic trip to Asian nations to bolster international resolve to combat North Korean nuclear adventurism and Islamic terrorism, as well as to promote his signature “America first” trade policies.
The tour was calculated to project American power after eight years of pathetic servility, weakness, and apology tours by President Obama, and, of course, to bolster Trump’s standing as a world leader, among other things. Despite some grumbling from Democrats like Nancy Pelosi who said the Chinese were likely laughing at Trump for treading lightly in China about that country’s trade imbalance with the U.S. after using strong rhetoric domestically, reviews have been generally positive. Trump was presidential, as pollsters like to say.
As he departed the U.S. on Nov. 3, the White House said Trump’s foreign trip, “the longest trip to Asia by an American president in more than a quarter century” to promote his counter-terrorism strategy “and reaffirm the importance of a free and open system where all independent nations are strong, sovereign, and free from the threats of terrorism, coercion, and nuclear war.”
In a nutshell, that is exactly what President Trump did overseas.
In Seoul, South Korea, Trump warned that "three of the largest aircraft carriers in the world" have been sent to the region in case North Korea refuses to make a deal on nuclear weapons. During his visit to Asia the media reported that the carriers USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan, and USS Theodore Roosevelt, were conducting drills in the ocean near the Korean Peninsula.
"We have a nuclear submarine also positioned," Trump said in a joint appearance with Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in. "We have many things happening that we hope, we hope -- in fact, I'll go a step further, we hope to God we never have to use."
In South Korea's National Assembly, Trump offered a nuclear ultimatum of sorts to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who has been taunting his neighbors and the U.S. by testing missiles in waters off Japan and not far from U.S. overseas territories.
"This is a very different administration than the United States has had in the past. Do not underestimate us. Do not try us. We will defend our common security, our shared prosperity, and our sacred liberty," Trump said.
"The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer, they are putting your regime in grave danger," the president said as if addressing Kim. "Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves."
In that country, “leaders imprison their people under the banner of tyranny, fascism, and oppression," he added.
At the United Nations in September, Trump said he would “totally destroy” North Korea, if necessary. He has also repeatedly mocked Kim as “little Rocket Man.”
Trump skipped the visit new American presidents typically make to the heavily fortified border zone between the two Koreas because doing so is “becoming a bit of a cliché, frankly,” a White House official was quoted saying.
In Beijing the next day, Trump conducted a joint presser with People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping.
Both Trump and Xi are mutually committed “to the complete denuclearization of North Korea,” Trump said, adding both leaders agreed “to increase economic pressure until North Korea abandons its reckless and dangerous path.”
But China is known for weaseling its way out of promises to crack down on its hardline Stalinist ally which maintains the fourth-largest army on the planet. So Xi is probably just giving lip service to Trump’s concerns about Kim.
Trump also attempted to bolster the resolve of nations opposed to North Korea.
All responsible nations must join together to stop arming and financing, and even trading with the murderous North Korean regime. Together, we have, in our power, to finally liberate this region, and the world, from this very serious nuclear business. But it will require collective action, collective strength, and collective devotion to winning the peace.
On Friday in Vietnam, after cozying up to the Chinese leadership, Trump pivoted, taking a hard line against Chinese trade practices in a speech to CEOs attending the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Soon after his inauguration, Trump scuttled the Pacific Rim trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trump said during the Asia trip he had “openly and directly” discussed with President Xi “China’s unfair trade practices and the enormous trade deficits they have produced with the United States.” The U.S. will “no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression.”
“From this day forward we will compete on a fair and equal basis,” the president said. “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I am always going to put America first.”
Trump said the U.S. will more closely scrutinize trade pacts. “What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.”
Earlier in the trip in Tokyo, Trump gently scolded Japan for its “massive trade deficits” with the U.S. and urged the Japanese to open up their automobile markets to American car makers. “Many millions of cars are sold by Japan into the United States, whereas virtually no cars go from the United States into Japan,” he said, indicating the dispute will be negotiated.
Trump also met with Tran Dai Quang, president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, in Danang, a city that holds a special significance for both nations.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces relied heavily on Danang as an important air base. U.S. ground combat operations in the war ended in that city on Aug. 13, 1972. It later fell to the communist North Vietnamese in the final days of March 1975. The communist regime celebrated its victory in Danang by issuing postage stamps the next year commemorating what it called “total liberation.”
On Sunday in Manila, Trump smiled, clinked glasses, and shook hands with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines known for his blunt rhetoric and boastfulness. They met at the 50th anniversary dinner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Duterte has come under withering criticism for his promise to eradicate illegal drugs, even if many Filipinos get killed in the process. After then-President Obama criticized Duterte’s war on drugs, Duterte called Obama a "son of a whore.” Trump, by contrast, told Duterte in April that he was doing a “great job” in his country. Duterte said yesterday that Trump gave him “words of encouragement” in Vietnam the previous day.
Left-leaning human rights groups like Amnesty International accuse Duterte’s government of paying assassins to kill drug addicts and carrying out extra-judicial killings, but many Filipinos support the tough anti-drug campaign. Duterte denies he has ordered anyone to break the law.
Notably, President Trump, unlike his leftist predecessor, did not sully his high office on this trip by physically bowing before foreign leaders.
What a difference an election makes.