United States President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia was the longest made by an American president to the region since 1991, and it has not been a failure. If that long visit had been made by any other president, it would most certainly have been hailed in positive terms. Both the Japan and South Korea legs were constructive, as the focus was clearly on security issues, as expected by Washington’s allies in the region.
China’s grand reception at the Forbidden City and Trump’s flatteries were read as the sign of an inevitable rebalance of power between a triumphant Xi Jinping and a marginalized Donald Trump. However, the over-the-board flattering remarks by President Trump, including on China’s cunningness in using weaknesses of others to serve its own interests, could also be interpreted as tongue-in-cheek remarks, and a way to increase the level of expectations and pressure on such a “great power.”
Vietnam also gave an opportunity to underline the possibility of reconciliation between two former enemies, and to mention the South China Sea, in spite of the fact that, compared to the North Korean nuclear crisis, it was not the priority of this trip. Only the Philippines was a disappointment, but much more because of President Rodrigo Duterte own vagaries rather than because of the American President’s fault.
So the question is, why, particularly in European media, mainstream comments were quasi-unanimously disparagingly negative? More specifically, why did they take for granted analysis that presented the result of that trip as a confirmation of the vanishing of American power and influence in Asia?
First, there is the legacy of the surprise, and disappointment, that followed Trump’s election. His personal style and provocative remarks did not play well in a Europe where Brexit and the defeat of Hillary Clinton have been interpreted as two aspects of the same low-end populism.
Of course, Trump’s sorties on climate change or in the defense of “America First” and walls building could only appear as particularly repellent to an entity, the European Union, that strives on the much more politically correct values of openness, inclusiveness, and environmental consciousness, whatever the realities on the ground.
In other words, the apparent lack of sophistication of the new American President and the unashamedly good health of the US economy pose a direct challenge to European self-righteousness. This led to a tendency to systematically reject a priori all actions from the US and its new president.
The second set of reasons, though, is anchored to the lack of global vision and interest in most European countries, with the exception of France and Great Britain, for strategic challenges outside of Europe’s own immediate priorities.
In that context, Donald Trump’s hard line on North Korea has not been well taken. The United Nations General Assembly declaration, “We will have no choice but to destroy all of North Korea,” has generally been quoted out of context, with no mention of the initial remark, “If the US is forced to defend itself or its allies.”
In other words, the deterrent dimension of that phrase—against a regime that regularly proclaims its ambition to strike the United States, Japan, or South Korea with potentially nuclear tipped missiles—was not mentioned. In a strange reversal of logic, the main threat appears, to most European commentators, to be the American president, rather than the openly aggressive and dysfunctional North Korean regime.
Donald Trump might act in a way not in accord with the practice of a more traditional and polished diplomacy. However, this same unpredictability and unashamed use of direct threats might be better adapted to the ways regimes like the ones in North Korea—and, to a lesser degree, China—act and calculate their decision making.
As well, the EU stress on engagement and dialogue, contrasting with its much harsher attitude towards Russia, could only lead to a weakening of the pressures exercised on North Korea to achieve the vital objective of complete and verifiable denuclearization. This position is in direct opposition with the United States, but also with its allies in Asia, that also consider that it is no time for negotiations, and that a nuclear armed North Korea would pose an immediate and clear threat both to the region and to the world.
And, last but not the least, a majority of European analysts and political actors, in spite of some progresses in recent years, seem to be too easily convinced by a discourse that conveys the idea that China “won.” Nothing could be less true, particularly in Asia, where no countries want to see the realization of a China dream where Beijing would be able to impose its own fantasies of a China-centered or China-led Asian pole. To give credit to these claims, and to focus exclusively on a denunciation of American policy under Trump, could only have negative consequences for the Asia-Pacific region but also for Europe itself.
Valérie Niquet earned her PhD in Political Science at the Paris-Sorbonne. She is senior associate fellow at the JIIA Japan Information Center and head of the Asia Department at Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS) in Paris. She works on international relations and geostrategic, defense, and security issues in Asia. Among her last publications, “La puissance chinoise en 100 questions” (in French) has been published in 2017. She teaches a course on “Sino-Japanese Relations in Perspective” at Keio University.