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Tusk in manila

Tusk and Trump in Asia

18 November 2017


Tusk follows Trump to Asia

While most attention has been on President Trump’s visit to Asia, it is important to recognize the significance of President Tusk’s visit to Manila where he attended an ASEAN-EU Summit marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN-EU relations, and also, for the first time, attended the East Asia Summit (EAS).

At the EU-ASEAN meeting, leaders endorsed the recent Action Plan (2018-22) between the two blocks and agreed to accelerate moves towards a Strategic Partnership. Tusk also reiterated the EU’s support to the ASEAN integration process and called for strengthened EU-ASEAN cooperation on security and global challenges. Both sides emphasized the importance of working together to reinforce the rules-based international order and multilateralism.  

Tusk said that while both sides could be proud of the relationship there was enormous potential for the future. ‘From trade to climate, from maritime security to counter-terrorism, together we can make our two regions stronger.’ ASEAN, he said was vital for stability at a time of geopolitical volatility. Tusk added that the bilateral trade agreements between the EU and Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand would be the stepping stones towards a future region-to-region trade agreement. EU investment in ASEAN rose 46 percent in 2016 making EU investment in ASEAN more than that of the US and Japan combined.

At the working lunch of the East Asia Summit, Tusk noted the EU’s growing ties to Asia and spoke about the relevance of the EU’s integrated concept of security for Asia. (This week Federica Mogherini will be in Myanmar chairing the ASEM meeting which will be a further boost to the EU’s engagement with Asia.)

Tusk’s visit was of course overshadowed by that of Trump to five Asian countries. In Japan and South Korea, the emphasis was on dealing with the missile threat from North Korea. In China, the DPRK was also top of the agenda but trade relations were also given much prominence. Trump refrained from criticizing China’s trade policies openly in Beijing but did so at the APEC summit in Vietnam when in a highly nationalistic speech he criticized all countries that ran trade surpluses with the US.  He also annoyed China by frequent references to the ‘Indo-Pacific region’, an indication that Washington understood the need to bring India into the equation, along with Japan and Australia. In Manila he said he welcomed meeting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who has aroused much controversy by his approval of a tough anti-drugs policy.

Trump continued his tweeting while on tour often sending contradictory messages about the usefulness of dialogue with the DPRK, about unfair Chinese trade practices, and the role of Russia in the US election. To the surprise of many, King Jung-un refrained from any missile testing during the Trump tour.

On his return home, Trump proclaimed a “great American comeback” and said “the future has never looked brighter”.  But many observers doubted that Trump had really achieved much as regards rectifying US trade imbalances or opening markets. The $250 billion trade deals signed in Beijing include previous purchases and many non-binding MOUs. They certainly do not represent changes in China’s trade and investment policy. As a candidate, Trump rarely missed an opportunity to lash out at China for unfair trading and as a currency manipulator; but as president he merely blamed his predecessors for the US trade deficit with China.


Next to righting trade imbalances the forming of a coalition against nuclear North Korea was a top issue on Trump’s agenda. He was the first US president to deliver a speech at the South Korean parliament since Bill Clinton in 1993. Instead of using this unique opportunity to reach out to the regime in the North (which he described as a ‘cult’) Trump made a frontal attack on Kim Jong-un leading the DPRK leader to call Trump an “old lunatic.” This led to one of Trump’s better replies stating that he never called Kim “short and fat.” Meanwhile three US aircraft carriers were taking part in a military exercise in the Western Pacific, in a show of strength aimed at North Korea.


Neither Seoul nor Beijing offered a change in their respective North Korea policy after Trump’s visit. Instead both countries ended a year-long stand-off over Seoul’s deployment of the US anti-missile system THAAD only days before Trump’s departure to Asia. The unexpected détente was followed by a meeting of Xi and Moon on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Vietnam where both praised the Seoul-Beijing agreement of October 31 which Xi called a “new start and a good beginning”.


Trump’s APEC Da Nang speech was an attack on the multilateral trading system (including TPP) and unfair trade practices (read China/Japan). Trump’s contradictory messages to the Asian leaders – let’s unite against DPRK but expect “America First” when it comes to trade – created perplexity, to say the least. It was thus Xi Jinping who assumed a leadership role by offering a vision of the region moving forward together and by speaking of multilateralism, climate change and innovation.


Trump’s leader-to-leader diplomacy did not win him any invitations to negotiate bilateral trade deals. Instead the president found himself outside looking in when the 11 remaining TPP members announced an in-principle agreement to implement the deal - without the US. The parallel RECEP negotiations were also given a boost at APEC.

Expectations were not high for Trump’s tour and US officials were pleased that his exhausting schedule did not result in major gaffes. His critics at home, however, noted that he did not bring up human rights at any point and seemed to be in awe of President Xi who put on a spectacular welcome for Trump in the Forbidden City. They also considered that he had de facto handed the leadership in Asia to China by refusing to engage in multilateral trade talks. Time will tell whether this was truly a passing of the torch.