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Trump’s APEC Speech Holds Few Answers For Regional Allies

7 minute read

In a roller-coaster speech that lurched from aspirational to hectoring and back again, U.S. president Donald Trump announced his “Indo-Pacific Dream” at the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam on Friday, saying that he would always put “America First” but inviting all nations present to join the U.S. in bilateral trade deals, while issuing a stern rebuke for China and multilateralism.

“I will make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation that wants to be our partner and will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade,” he told delegates gathered in the port city of Da Nang, decrying “large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.” Trump, who had just arrived in Da Nang from Beijing, termed his vision: “The Indo-Pacific Dream.”

“We will no longer tolerate the audacious theft of intellectual property,” the 71-year-old told the audience in Vietnam, the fourth stop of his 12-day, five-nation Asian tour, in an apparent attack on China. “We will confront the destructive practices of forcing business to surrender their technology to the state, and forcing them into join ventures in exchange for market access, we will address the massive subsidizing of industries through colossal state-owned enterprises that put private competitors out of business.”

While Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived for the summit just minutes after Air Force One, by name during his speech, much his vitriol was directed at his erstwhile host. Trump had left the Chinese capital that morning after highly cordial stops in Japan and South Korea, where calculated flattery from his hosts elicited gushing responses. But, after taking the stage in Dan Nang, he ramped up his rhetoric, accusing China of “product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation and predatory industrial policy.”

Trump’s speech will be unsettling for APEC members and the wider region, which looks to Washington to go beyond trade and zero-sum diplomacy to counter the growing hegemonic appetites of Beijing.

He made a strong indictment of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact. Just over half of APEC members signed up to TPP — which Trump withdrew from of on his first day in office, creating a power vacuum that analysts have termed a gift for Beijing. (Chinese President Xi Jinping recently spoke of his nation moving “closer to center stage” and pursuing “great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”)

“China has stoked an arc of anxiety from Delhi to Tokyo and down to Canberra and everyone is worried about China’s regional ambitions,” says Prof. Jeffery Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. “The U.S. has ceded leadership by default.”

Trump newly adopted realm of the “Indo-Pacific” appears an attempt to address this. He used the term 10 times during his APEC address, while Secretary for State Rex Tillerson rolled it out 15 times in a speech championing India last month. It’s usually a military term and attempts to resurrect a tactic, jettisoned under the Obama administration, to coalesce the region’s preeminent democracies — the U.S., Australia, Japan and India — into a bloc to counter China.

“The principle is to use India as a very large democracy that kind of anchors the region with the U.S. on the other side of the Pacific,” says Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

However, the bloc as an entity has not met for a decade, and given that India is not even an APEC member, it’s a strange sermon to preach here.

It’s also hardly a substitute for Trump’s nixing of TPP or the fact that, one year into his term, the diplomatic corps remains threadbare. Key allies Australia and South Korea don’t have U.S. ambassadors. Also worrying is Trump’s transactional attitude: nations fear that “America First” means they maybe sold down the river whenever Trump sees a better deal.

“There isn’t a sense of a larger vision or even a short-term plan of how the status quo is going to be defended in the face of China,” says Prof. Nick Bisley, an Asia expert at Australia’s La Trobe University. “The contrast couldn’t be more striking between Xi Jinping, who has a very strategic view about where its going and what it wants to achieve,” he adds, noting that there’s no doubt that Xi’s ambition is for China to become “the predominate power globally.”

On Friday, a senior Chinese finance official said that his government would ease foreign ownership obstacles in the finance and auto sectors and remove them in three to five years to assuage Trump. This is something Washington has been after for years, though the question is what quid pro quo Beijing has secured in return. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus recently told CNN that Beijing may butter up Trump in order to secure a U.S. pledge not to interfere in Asian affairs. That would be a “big problem,” he said. “The U.S. cannot fall for that.”

The consequences of China’s growing clout, and disdain for universal values like democracy, free speech and human rights, are already being laid bare. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has lurched the country from quasi-democracy toward outright dictatorship, shutting down independent media and jailing leading opposition figures before general elections next July. This has the tacit backing of Beijing, which has entrusted the former Khmer Rouge battalion commander to protect its local interests.

“Hun Sen is China’s wunderkind,” writes Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defence Force Academy. As a result of Beijing’s economic dominance and American withdrawal, adds Thayer, “mainland Southeast Asia will be drawn more into China’s orbit.”

Washington used to punish such backsliding and it used to matter. But while former President Barack Obama’s gave Thai general Prayuth Chan-Ocha the cold shoulder following his 2014 coup, imposing sanctions, Trump hosted him at the White House. Obama raised concerns about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which has claimed more than 7,000 lives to date, earning a colorful rebuke from the former Davao Mayor. Trump praised Duterte for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in an April 29 phone call.

It’s not just about bad optics. Myanmar’s democratic transition, while neither perfect nor complete, was galvanized by Obama’s persistent coaxing and his unprecedented visits to the military-dominated Southeast Asian nation, as well as those of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After Trump’s APEC speech, one can’t imagine he would go out on a limb for Myanmar — the world’s 74th economy with just $75.7 billion GDP — or anywhere else for that matter.

“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of any more,” he said. “I am always going to put America first in the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Beijing at charlie.campbell@time.com