WENY News - Trump stays on script but is empty-handed so far

Trump stays on script but is empty-handed so far

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By Nic Robertson CNN

Editor's note: Nic Robertson is CNN's international diplomatic editor. The opinion in this article belongs to the author.

DA NANG, Vietnam (CNN) -- US President Donald Trump has been relatively disciplined during his tour of Asia so far.

Compared with his sharp elbows and unprepared obstinacy in Europe earlier this year, he now seems to be toning himself down. This raises the question: How's that working out for him?

It may be his staff is disciplining him, not in the old-school sense of rapped knuckles for every error, but in the way his team can, putting him in front of a prompter when he speaks.

Sticking to a script has kept him out of trouble, kept him from calling Kim Jong Un "rocket man," and derailing diplomacy to drag Kim to talks.

In South Korea, he stuck to a more traditional formula of strong words delivered without personal insults, warning Kim against a "fatal miscalculation" and not to test American resolve: "Do not underestimate us, do not try us."

When he has strayed from well-scripted lines, one could almost feel his team wince.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as the President's host, blanched as Trump told him America would be first and Japan could be second while at the same time calling for balanced, fair and reciprocal trade.

It was jarring, and he would later see the cost, but it hasn't been the norm.

Indeed in China, Trump seemed to have been on a charm offensive with President Xi Jinping. Far from humiliating him about his pet peeve, the US trade deficit with China that he called "horrible" on the campaign trail last year, he gave the Chinese President a free pass.

Trump's uncharacteristic supplication seemed to have broken new ground, telling XI it wasn't China's fault but a US mistake: "I have great respect for you for that, because you are representing China, but it is too bad that past administrations allowed it to get so far out of kilter."

A pattern seems to be emerging. Despite his tub-thumping rhetoric, Trump is like a schoolyard bully: all talk until he meets his match.

Another read might be from the playbook of Trump's previous life: the businessman buttering up a prospective partner in pursuit of something further down the line. Something once Trump's presidential shackles come off, he'll be free to do.

Hints that perhaps this is a motivation are now routine. Presidential engagements that stop by Trump properties are breaking new ground -- as well as ethical boundaries.

Xi appears to have sensed Trump's real intent and taken the President's watered-down rhetoric to the bank, all but dismissing tackling the issue anyway, saying that the trade deficit could go on the back burner if it can't be resolved.

It was diplomatic speak for next time, with Xi saying he wanted a "constructive approach," encouraging the two nations to "put aside and diffuse differences while at the same time building common ground."

In hosting Trump, Xi has gone on the offensive, taking a page out of the Saudi "host with the most" playbook from the President's visit to Riyadh in May.

The Chinese leader is rolling out every red carpet in the Communist Party closet, even a new one just for Trump, dinner in the Forbidden City, the first foreign leader to get that since the declaration of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

In the days that followed Trump's Riyadh visit, he regaled other hosts with tales of the sumptuous splendor to which the Saudis had treated him. (It's somewhat ironic that Trump's rooms in Riyadh have this month become a kind of jail for the princes accused of corruption.)

Regardless, Trump seems to have risen to the gilded bait again. He showed Xi a video of his granddaughter reciting a poem in Mandarin, later enthusing to reporters, "We're having a great time."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump was "very gratified with the warm welcome that he's received," adding the two men enjoyed a "personal relationship that's defined by deep respect for each other."

Tillerson said Trump specifically thinks of Xi: "You're a strong man. You can, I'm sure, solve this for me."

Trump's parting shot from Beijing was to double down on his critics that he was being too soft, tweeting, "I don't blame China, I blame the incompetence of past Admins for allowing China to take advantage of the U.S. on trade leading up to a point where the U.S. is losing $100's of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would've done same!"

Dressing down in Europe

His deferential guest routine seems a far cry from the odd-man-out status Trump garnered in Europe at the G7 and G20 summits.

In Brussels, he questioned the cost of NATO's new headquarters and elbowed Montenegro's Prime Minister out of his way. At the G7 in Sicily, his apparent lack of preparedness led Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni to berate him for not negotiating professionally.

The Hamburg G20 summit later closed with a dressing down for Trump from German Chancellor Angela Merkel over his failure to endorse the Paris climate accord: "Unfortunately -- and I deplore this -- the United States of America left the climate agreement, or rather announced their intention of doing this."

But arriving in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the first of three regional summits following his near flawless if a tad fawning diplomacy in Japan, South Korea and China, the dangers of going off-script or stumbling into another diplomatic faux pas increased.

Yet, if Trump's White House team efforts were to avoid creating waves, it seems it needn't have worried. Trump's speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit took center stage and stayed on a carefully worded script.

He didn't challenge or berate anyone by name and followed the same formula as his Beijing speech: "The current trade imbalance is not acceptable. I do not blame China or any other country of which there are many for taking advantage of the United States on trade."

He laid out his "America First" vision, one in which bilateral -- not multinational -- trade deals are the future. "From this day forward we will compete on a fair and equal basis. we are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first."

A small ripple of applause circulated as if members of the audience appreciated his populist nationalist agenda.

From all appearances, Trump's apparent recalibration from disruptor President to polite President -- avoiding the pitfalls he fell into in Europe -- was working.

Having put the backs of Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron up a few months ago, Asia Trump seemed to be Mr. Nice Guy, raising the question of what rewards that might bring.

Trade on his terms, a coalition united in robustly enforced sanctions against North Korea and a bagful of business contracts and the promise of jobs to bring home to America?

He didn't have to wait long for the answer.

Xi, who hours earlier had lavished just the attention and prestige Trump enjoys, repudiated his American counterpart's vision on trade.

Not long after Trump spoke, Xi took the microphone at APEC, telling the same crowd of leaders, globalization is an "irreversible historical trend," that "openness brings progress" and "isolation leaves one behind."

Supplication in Sino/US relations it seems brought a slap down. But that wasn't the only shot across Trump's trade bows.

Leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership nations, including Trump's charming host in Japan days earlier, inked an agreement to pick up and carry on with the multinational trade group that Trump withdrew from days after becoming President.

And if all that wasn't enough -- despite traveling halfway round the world to tell leaders he and America are open for business and bilateral trade deals -- he held no bilateral talks. No one it seemed was lining up to buy what he had to sell: trade on solely American terms.

Golf, burgers and hat signing with Abe it appears were the window dressing to deep divisions. Xi opened the doors of the Forbidden City for Trump but denied him entry to the inner sanctum of influence.

He isn't returning entirely empty-handed. Abe agreed to buy an unspecified amount of military equipment, while Trump and Xi signed a $250 billion trade deal, but this is not money in the bank, just tentative deals that can be backed out of later.

As Trump commented after 100 days in office, being President is not as easy as it looks: "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier."

The skills of international diplomacy must seem just as challenging. Trump's book "The Art of the Deal" may need a serious update for anyone else considering taking on America's top job.

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