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Trump, the illusory giant

Latschan Thomas Kommentarbild App
Thomas Latschan
November 14, 2017

He spewed fire from afar, but once in Beijing, he was meek. Donald Trump's first trip to Asia highlighted one thing: the US president has very little desire to compete with China, says DW's Thomas Latschan.

USA Donald Trump Abflug aus Peking
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

It is rather unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ever read German children's books. But if he had, he would certainly know Mr. Tur Tur, a figure from Michael Ende's classic children's novel "Jim Button." Mr. Tur Tur is an illusory giant: the farther away he is, the larger and more threatening he appears. Yet the nearer he comes, the more he shrinks, until he is normal-sized and ultimately stands before the observer as an old man who scares no one.

Criticism from afar

Seen from the perspective of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Donald Trump has a lot in common with Mr. Tur Tur. The US president's recent trip to Asia made that clear to the world. At a safe distance, be it at the APEC summit in Vietnam or the ASEAN summit in the Philippines, Trump ruthlessly attacked Chinese trade policy, railing against its "currency manipulation" and "massive intellectual property theft." He even threatened the Chinese with economic sanctions and tariffs. 

The presidents do business

The contrast to his behavior during his state visit to Beijing could not have been greater. Once there, Donald Trump was suddenly timid, praising the Chinese president effusively and displaying his awe for Xi's power. Trump went so far as to temporarily change the background image on his Twitter account, proudly showing himself at Xi Jinping's side while visiting the Forbidden City and lauding the welcome ceremony that his Chinese host afforded him. Trump, the illusory giant, made himself small.

Screenshot of Donald Trump's Twitter account
On Twitter, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, and temporarily changed the background picture on his accountImage: twitter.com/realDonaldTrump

So small in fact, that it seemed as if he were meekly peering beyond his own nose when US jobs seemed threatened. Under Trump, the US appears to lack any clear strategy for Asia, his plans for the "Indo-Pacific" remain fuzzy at best. Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia," in comparison, was aimed at embracing China's neighbors politically and economically, thus curbing Beijing's influence in the region. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was an integral part of that strategy. Obama saw the trade agreement primarily as a foreign policy instrument. Donald Trump, on the other hand, saw it as a threat to US jobs and pulled out of the treaty.

True allies irritated

Japan, one of America's staunchest Asian allies, was attacked by the US president during the trip for supposedly pursuing unfair trade practices. Leaders in Taipei, for their part, were officially nervous ahead of Trump's Beijing visit: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen implored President Trump not to even mention Taiwan during the visit for fear that its status could become a bargaining chip in Beijing and Washington's efforts to come to a US-Chinese agreement in the North Korea conflict.

Longtime allies in the region reacted to the US president's performance with growing consternation. China presented itself as a reliable partner, deftly attempting to fill the power vacuum being left by the USA. Geopolitically, it is expanding its network of naval bases in the South China Sea, while economically, it has been investing massively  along the new "Silk Road." Developmentally, China is expanding the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which provides enormous credit to developing and emerging economies, while culturally, it's overseeing rapid creation of ever more Confucius Institutes around the world.

Thomas Latschan
DW's Thomas Latschan

Unlike Trump, President Xi Jinping is pursuing a clear global political strategy. Thus, China's rise to becoming a global power is not only being accomplished on its own, but rather it is being aided by the fact that President Trump is willingly abandoning America's claims to leadership in Asia and around the world, opting instead for an isolationist approach – despite the fact that the USA will remain the world's unrivaled military power into the foreseeable future.   

Donald Trump entered last year's US presidential election with the promise to "Make America Great Again." Globally, however, he is transforming the one-time superpower into the world's illusory giant.