In Korea, President Trump gave a barn-burning human rights speech on North Korea. He nonetheless showed restraint and largely reaffirmed the administration's variant of "strategic patience," now dubbed "maximum pressure and engagement." This strategy involves engaging China and seeking multilateral support for a tightened sanctions regime, while holding open the door to talks.
The China and APEC performances, by contrast, swiveled back toward America First themes and immediately raised questions about the meaning of the president's Indo-Pacific strategy. And that was before the flurry of tweets arriving Saturday and Sunday that we will take up in a subsequent post on North Korea.
The remarks at the APEC leaders' meeting began much like a stump speech in which the politician starts by acknowledging the local notables: "Thailand in the house! Upper middle income country! Shout out to the Philippines: proud and devout! India and Indonesia: democratic!" But the theme was not the opportunities for collaboration so much as the preoccupation with sovereignty that undergirds the Bannon-Miller wing of the president's coalition. In front of an audience of developing countries, the president argued that weaker, poorer countries have systematically exploited the stronger, richer one that for much of the postwar period stood at the apex of the international political economy. As in his remarks in Beijing, he did not blame the countries in question; in President Trump's social Darwinist view of the world, others will naturally exploit you if they can. It's in our DNA.
The contradictions with the proposed multilateral strategy toward the "Indo-Pacific" are hard to miss. Not only were existing "deals"—including major multilateral institutions such as the WTO—unfair, but the president argued that US trading partners were not even abiding by the terms of agreements that had been reached. The list of grievances includes a number of completely legitimate concerns: intellectual property, forced technology transfers and joint ventures—both clear references to China—as well as subsidies, state-owned enterprises, competition policy, and cyber.
Yet many of these policy areas were exactly what the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) sought to address. The United States may be able to kill multilateral agreements of which it is a member, but it cannot kill others in the works, most notably the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will naturally get a boost from the US withdrawal from the TPP.
In the absence of multilateral agreements, the president offered bilateral ones in which the US will openly seek to wrest maximum advantage. Do agreements like the NAFTA and KORUS look appealing at the moment? The problem is not that the US is pursuing its own self-interest. That has always been a red herring; all administrations pursue a conception of the national interest. The problem is that Trump has overestimated the leverage that he has over a diverse array of planets that are spinning in quite different orbits and generating their own leverage.
Let's take one example by drilling down into the Japanese case (for astute coverage, see Adam Behsudi at Politico and Phil Levy at Foreign Policy). Agriculture Secretary Perdue has been pretty open about his interest in entering bilateral trade negotiations that would offset preferences now enjoyed by Australia, the EU, Chile, and Mexico. The situation is about to get worse with the success of the TPP 11 in forging an agreement in principle to move forward after wrestling over about 20 objections to the original text (more than half on intellectual property). Vice President Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso met in mid-October at a round of the US-Japan Economic Dialogue. But the statement provides a revealing contrast. The TPP has dozens of broad, substantive chapters. The outcome of the Economic Dialogue was literally persimmons, potatoes, and streamlining noise and emission testing procedures for US auto exports.
Prior to the trip, it also became apparent that Tokyo has little interest in exposing itself to serious negotiations on a bilateral agreement with the US. The reasons are straightforward: the administration is transparently seeking to pocket Japan's TPP concessions while rolling back its own. With the future of the NAFTA and KORUS in doubt, why bother? Better to make a few military purchases and throw Trump highly-calibrated concessions than reach for a more ambitious agreement that would tie Abe's hands and have more limited economic impact.
In the meantime, the US share of the Japanese agricultural market has, and will continue, to fall.
Then there is the larger strategic picture. At the end of the trip, the administration agreed to an officials'—not leaders'—meeting of the quad with Japan, Australia, and India. This is actually a Japanese idea that goes back to a speech made by Abe in 2007 during his first run as prime minister. If played subtly, the idea of an offshore balancing strategy based on a loose coalition of Indo-Pacific states is sensible. But what is the glue? If trying to forge an anti-China containment coalition with a military core, the path is fraught with risk; neither India nor other important ASEAN partners such as Indonesia are likely to sign on to that agenda. But if not a quasi-alliance then what holds these countries together if not trade or other cooperative ventures such as climate change? While Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono would like to institutionalize the Quad, Trump's deep skepticism toward multilateralism suggests that there is not likely to be much there there.
What is left in the absence of institutionalized bilateral deals? The trip suggests two directions: ad hoc corporate deal-making and military sales of the sort seen in Saudi Arabia and China; and trade enforcement measures which—if actually pursued—are likely to inflame trade relations with the region. Trump derided the pivot, but as Kurt Cambell's book-length exposition showed, it had a plausible conceptual foundation in alliances, trade, institutions, and a commitment to American values. The administration's alternative to the pivot, which in fact drew on ideas that have been shared across the political aisle, remains very much a work in progress following the Asia trip.