I agree with Susan Rice, writing in today’s New York Times. In one trip, an American president has inflicted grievous damage to our nation’s position in Asia. Presidents both Democratic and Republican have been pursuing very similar paths for decades: An expansion of cross-border trade and investment has created one of history’s greatest economic expansions and yielded tremendous benefits to American companies and consumers. The prosperity has created geopolitical stability even in the face of North Korea’s nuclear build-up. The American position has been based on adherence to a set of values about democracy and human rights, which resulted in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan all embracing democracy. Moreover, the United States stood as a counterbalance to China’s increasingly obvious expansionist ambitions.
Trump’s first stop in Japan was the only one that did not deeply offend me, as someone who has devoted my career to understanding and explaining the U.S. engagement in Asia. In Seoul, he expressed complete ignorance about why China might support North Korea. In China itself, he did not display the slightest hint of backbone in resisting President Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian grip on power or in criticizing China’s military buildup in the South China Sea. The Chinese smoked him with pomp and circumstance.
Then the wheels fell off the Trump express when he gave a completely inappropriate America First speech in Vietnam and hobnobbed with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, completely disregarding even a hint of concern about the thousands of Filipinos who have been killed in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
Now all the governments in the region are confronting these realities: the American president does not understand the roots of the Korean standoff. He is completely unable to deal with the Chinese president as an equal. He completely rejects economic collaboration. And he celebrates tough guys who break the rules, as he does. America’s role as a leader in the region has been trashed.