President Donald Trump’s 12-day Asian trip may be worthy of attention not for what he did, but for what he refrained from doing.
Consistent with his scoffing at the trade deals signed by his predecessors, Trump sat out economic negotiations among Pacific Rim nations.
Trade ministers from 11 countries convened in Vietnam while Trump visited. They reached a mutual pact to fight protectionism. The U.S. was a nonfactor.
On Monday in the Philippines, Trump declined, as expected, to prod that country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, regarding the denial of due process.
Duterte, who took power last year, has overseen a violent crackdown that includes extrajudicial killings that he justifies to the U.S. as a war on drug dealers.
A Duterte spokesman said Trump never raised rights abuses in their cordial 40-minute chat, though the White House claimed the issue did come up at one point.
While in China, Trump embraced the pomp of his state visit. It was a sharp contrast with the hostile words he flung long-distance at the giant nation during last year’s campaign.
Trump told rally-goers in Indiana in May 2016, for example: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.”
But for as long as leader Xi Jinping hosted him, Trump tilted his public attacks toward the U.S. government that preceded his inauguration in January.
“I don’t blame China,” Trump said Thursday as he addressed business leaders inside the Great Hall of the People. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
Trump’s camp also touted a list of commercial “deals” as having been reached. But they mostly consisted of nonbinding memos of understanding that could take years to implement, if that happens at all.
Only after departing China for Vietnam did Trump start to talk tougher again. “We can no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses and we will not tolerate them,” he said.
Trump has long since dropped his currency-manipulation charges.
While in Vietnam, Trump chose not to visit Ha Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, which previous presidents visited, and where Sen. John McCain was held while a captive.
What Trump also did not do while abroad was strike any distance between himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he met informally in Vietnam.
When charges of election meddling were raised, Trump said of Putin: “I think he is very insulted by it — which is not a good thing for our country.”
Trump’s messages from the East last week about the rogue state of North Korea have indicated nothing new in terms of U.S. strategy.
On Sunday, Trump promoted announcements he planned to make Wednesday from the White House. “We’ve made some very big steps with respect to trade, far bigger than anything you know,” he said.
As the week began, however, the Asia trip was winding down with little change in the status quo.