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Analysis: Trump Pitches Every Country-For-Itself System in Asia

President urges Asian leaders to replicate his ‘America first’ approach

President Donald Trump, here arriving in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, has defended his “America first” approach throughout his Asia trip. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead/Flickr)
President Donald Trump, here arriving in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, has defended his “America first” approach throughout his Asia trip. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead/Flickr)

President Donald Trump has used parts of his Asia tour to vigorously defend his “America first” approach to governing. But he also told world leaders to look out for themselves.

Trump views the world in stark every-country-for-itself terms. He frequently says nations should think of their own self interests at all times, eschewing international groups and deals that are composed of three parties or more.

Such views put him at odds not only with many foreign policy experts, but also with members of his own party. Even as Trump has doubled down on a “country-first” philosophy, many Republican lawmakers have urged him to keep the United States heavily involved in global affairs. 

[Unhappy With Asia’s Trade Tactics, Trump Delivers Stern Warning]

At an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Friday, Trump offered a striking example of his country-first sales pitch.

He began with a stern lecture to the assembled government officials and corporate executives, warning that his administration will be much tougher on “violations” and “cheating” than its predecessors.

Echoing the talking points he’s rehearsed all over Asia since landing there Nov. 3, he pushed Pacific Rim leaders to alter their trade practices and economic systems to give America and its companies a better shot at doing business inside their countries.

Vowing to crack down on the theft of U.S. firms’ intellectual property, Trump said he would also take action on “the massive subsidizing of industries through colossal state-owned enterprises” and speak out when American companies are the victims of cyber attacks. “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” he said.

In the eyes of the 45th president, the world is not one in which countries should band together, but an us-versus-them battleground that has been “unfair” to the United States, its workers and its companies.

But in a seeming contradiction, while sharply criticizing Asian governments, the U.S. president also urged them to adopt country-first approaches of their own.

“I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first,” Trump told the audience.

Declaring independence

Time and again during his APEC speech, Trump stressed his belief in strong “sovereign and independent” countries and criticized multicountry groups and agreements.

“As we can see, in more and more places throughout this region, citizens of sovereign and independent nations have taken greater control of their destinies and unlocked the potential of their people,” he said.

Trump warned Asian officials in the audience that he intends to be tough on them, and signaled he expects nothing but the same in return.

“I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it,” the president said. “They did not, but I will.” He vowed that his administration will not “turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression — those days are over.”

Also over under Trump’s watch are pursuits of trade pacts involving multiple Pacific Rim countries, like the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump scuttled. In its place will be pacts between Washington and individual Asian nations, he reiterated.

Those so-called bilateral deals will have to meet what Trump on Friday described as “the principles of fair and reciprocal trade.” He said countries must deal from a standpoint of “mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

“Many of you in this room have taken part in these great, uplifting national projects of building. They have been your projects from inception to completion, from dreams to reality,” he said. “In the process of your economic development, you’ve sought commerce and trade with other nations, and forged partnerships based on mutual respect and directed toward mutual gain.”

Going bilateral

But does Trump’s country-first approach, with its emphasis on two-country trade pacts, have a chance of growing roots in the region? Experts have their doubts.

[While Trump’s Away, Congress Legislates?]

Michael Green, a former National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration, said the Trump approach is a “somewhat zero-sum view of economic relations” more than it is “a view of setting rules and expanding the integration of countries into an open and free trading system.”

One major hurdle: A year after Trump was elected, close U.S. allies in the region are struggling to understand how his plan would even work.

“The administration wants a bilateral free-trade agreement with Japan,” Green said during a recent event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Japanese government is a bit perplexed what that means and why they should do it.”

Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations said she isn’t sure how far the United States will get in its efforts to forge bilateral agreements. 

“There is some hope among the remaining members of the TPP that at some point perhaps the U.S. … working with Japan or with Australia somehow is going to find its way back into a broader multilateral trade agreement,” Economy said. “But I think, in all honesty, I don’t see much hope for many new bilateral trade agreements to be negotiated at this point.”

That could cause some frustration within Trump’s own party. Many Republicans are willing to back Trump’s push for trade terms more favorable to the United States — but they remain, at their collective core, bigger believers in free global trade than Trump.

Before Trump departed for his twelve-day tour of Japan, South Korea, China and other countries — the longest U.S. presidential visit to Asia in more than a quarter-century — some Republicans offered words of advice.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce of California urged the president to use the trip to “seize this moment to help bring home economic growth.”

“Asia’s dynamic economies hold many opportunities for jobs here in the U.S.,” Royce said in a Nov. 3 statement. “The United States must work to build on and strengthen these important [trade] agreements. If we don’t, others will certainly take further advantage.”

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