Trump's Asia trip shows U.S. at risk of being sidelined in the region's economic future

Don Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- For all of President Donald Trump's efforts to build personal relations with leaders and to reassure allies during his first Asia trip, the most significant thing that has happened may have been what did not happen.

From Tokyo to Seoul to Beijing, Trump has received maximum ceremonial honors -- a "state visit-plus," the Chinese called it. Asian leaders listened politely to his demands that they accept what he considers fairer trade terms and that they buy more American goods.

Nowhere in Trump's tour, however, have any of those leaders entered into serious negotiations or made significant concessions.

"Quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a $300 (billion) to $500 billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Beijing Thursday, referring to the U.S. trade deficit with China. "In terms of really getting at some of the fundamental elements behind why this imbalance exists, there's still a lot more work to do."

Instead of offering concessions, both the United States' historical allies, Japan and South Korea; and China, its most serious Pacific rival, signaled that they had taken Trump at his word: His "America First" policy means the United States will become less and less a player in the fastest-growing and most dynamic region in the world.

That reality was underscored Thursday when trade ministers from the TPP-11, the signatories to the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement minus the U.S., said at a meeting in Vietnam that they had agreed on how to revise the agreement to proceed without Washington. The Obama administration's effort to push the agreement through Congress failed last year, and Trump withdrew U.S. agreement to it shortly after he took office.


"When you sit out the game, the rest of the world moves on," said Deborah Elms, executive director of Singapore-based Asian Trade Center, a research and consulting firm. Asian nations are enthusiastically cutting trade deals with each other and with European countries, she said.

With Washington abandoning the Asia-Pacific trade deal and more generally pulling back from the multilateral economic order that it established and nurtured for decades, China is pressing to become the dominant player in the region.

Its small neighbors, among them Malaysia and Singapore, are similarly proceeding to act alone, without their longtime big brother at their side.

Japan has moved from its traditionally passive role and has exerted more leadership on trade. It was Tokyo, for example, that took the lead in pushing forward on the TPP without the United States.


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