Trump, Putin and the APEC Summit

President Trump’s visit to Asia has gone reasonably well—on par with his earlier visit to the Middle East and better than his European trip. He clearly enjoys all the pomp and ceremony that comes with these foreign trips—and the Asian governments are skilled at offering it.

Expectations that Trump’s trips would see the announcement of many business deals were met. There were several new multi-billion dollar contracts for US weapons—some of these will help countries deter North Korea, others will aim to moderate potential Chinese foreign adventurism. Due to these US regional security ties, however, Trump’s offer to mediate the South China Sea dispute is unlikely to receive much support in Beijing.

Trump even overcame the gap between his preference for bilateral deals and the Asian interest in multilateral mechanisms. Asian leaders cannot forgo the opportunity to make even bilateral trade deals with the US President given the large size of the US economy. They presumably believe that US enthusiasm for multilateralism will resume under future US administrations.

The main disappointment may be that nothing occurred to reshape the unbalanced China-US economic relationship that Trump inherited, though the solution to this problem will require strengthening the US economy as well as correcting Chinese foreign economic policies.

The Trump-Putin encounters at the APEC conference in Danang, Vietnam, were also something of a letdown. Rather than a formal session, the two presidents again, as at the Hamburg G-20 summit, only met on the sidelines of a larger multilateral conference. And on this occasion, it was apparently only for a few minutes between several events. Putin blamed protocol and scheduling problems and said those responsible would be punished but there was a lot of pressure on Trump to limit his public engagements with Putin.

As in Putin’s October 19 speech at the annual Valdai Discussion Club conference in Sochi, the Russian President praised Trump’s personality but objected to US policies regarding arms control, media restrictions, and foreign investment sanctions. He also seemed to condition a Russian-Japanese peace treaty to limiting Japanese-US defense ties, soon after Trump and newly reelected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had just deepened them.

At the APEC summit, President Xi Jinping again appears to have been in the pivotal position in the Russian-US-China triangle. Trump was cautious about confronting Xi over China’s predatory economic practices, both in Beijing and at his other meetings. Meanwhile, Putin noted that Russia’s trade with China was three times greater than with the United States and was likely to grow further in coming years as Russia and China develop their hydrocarbon, nuclear energy, and other trade and pursue their joint aviation projects. He also indicated that the two countries were making progress in aligning their Eurasian integration plans, though without offering any details.

Interesting, when Putin again reaffirmed the Russian-Chinese joint roadmap for resolving the North Korean crisis, he indicated that Moscow had received indications that the US, Japanese, and South Korean governments had expressed some support for the approach. In the past, these three governments had worried about freezing recent North Korean gains in its nuclear and missile capabilities as well as equating these illegal programs, prohibited by UN resolutions, with the fully legal joint defense exercises between the three partners.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.