Trump’s mixed messages fail to reassure Asian allies

MANILA — President Trump vowed this week to reclaim the United States’ role as a Pacific power. But as he wrapped up a marathon tour of Asia on Tuesday, Trump’s mixed messages left allies unsure of the United States’ staying power and fed a growing sense that China, not the United States, drives the agenda in the region.

Whether embracing China’s Communist leader at the same time that he promoted a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” or rallying partners to confront North Korea even as he warned that he was putting America first on trade, Trump was an often bewildering figure to countries that had already viewed this new president with anxiety.

“He’s seen as more personable than the figure on Twitter, but these internal contradictions have not been worked out,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in South Korea. “Contrast that with the Chinese, who have this incredible consistency of message and are rising inexorably.”


In Manila, the final stop on his punishing 12-day tour of the region, Trump declared his visit a success.

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“This has been a very fruitful trip for us and, also, in all fairness, for a lot of other nations,” Trump said on Monday, at a meeting with the leaders of Japan and Australia, during which he lectured them on the need for “fair and reciprocal” trade with the United States.

“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” the president added.

By some measures, he was right. Trump made no major gaffes. The closest he came was calling the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “short and fat” in a tweet.

He also faced criticism for failing to challenge Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings, on human rights.


But Trump’s energy did not flag and he was accorded a lavish reception at every stop, especially Beijing, where President Xi Jinping threw open the doors of the Forbidden City.

“Like any Trump endeavor, there were the inevitable distractions with tweets about the physical appearance of leaders and clear signals that he prefers the company of tyrants like Putin and Duterte,” said Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs.

Still, Campbell said, “If this trip were a high-wire act, President Trump managed to get to the other side.”

And yet there were subtler signs of tension, which spoke to the conflicting messages Trump brought to Asia and suggested a level of disarray in the White House’s policy toward the region.

Before his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, for example, Trump had a brief contretemps with Turnbull over trade imbalances after he asserted that the United States ran deficits with “almost everybody.”


“Except us,” Turnbull interjected.

Trump made trade a major part of his message in Asia, and his tone grew more bluntly nationalistic as the trip wore on.

After declaring in Beijing that he did not blame the Chinese for chronic imbalances with the United States, he delivered a withering denunciation in Vietnam of regional trade pacts, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump has withdrawn the United States.