By: Dino Patti Djalal, Former Indonesian ambassador to the US, founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI)
(This article was published by the Jakarta Post in November 13, 2017)
As United States President Donald Trump makes his way across Asia, he will see lots of smiling faces from Asian leaders and citizens who, unlike his domestic constituents, find him somewhat amusing.
Actually, Trump should pay attention to an important perceptual shift in Asia. A recent poll by Perth USAsia Center showed that most respondents in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India for the first time see China as the most influential country in Asia, overtaking the US.
Most respondents in those countries also believe China will remain the most influential country for the next decade, again overtaking the US. The presidency of Trump was a relevant factor in this. The poll results reflect the evolving views held by Asians toward the US and China.
When Asians see the US and China, they don’t just see two great powers locked in strategic rivalry; they also now see a picture of two sharply contrasting images of leadership.
While President Trump puts emphasis on “America first” and is determined to make the US “win, win, win,” President Xi Jinping stresses the theme of “common destiny” and “shared prosperity.”
While Trump blamed globalization for the US’ ills, Xi said in Davos that China’s embrace of globalization had been “the right strategic choice” and called for “global free trade and investment.” While Trump pulls the US out of the Paris climate pact, Xi is positioning China as the world’s new climate champion.
Trump has also ditched Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia policy, but so far has fallen short of providing a credible Asia policy of his own.
On the other hand, Xi has consistently pursued the Belt and Road Initiative since 2013, a grand design that if implemented would become “the largest infrastructure project in history” and cement China’s regional leadership.
And while Trump tweets every day about things, including foreign policy, which petrifies his own administration, Xi, well, let’s just say he does not even have a Twitter account.
This is peculiar territory for Asians. For decades, and for generations, Asians had been accustomed to US presidents who — despite their shortcomings — talked and acted statesmanlike.
Under President Trump, the US image in Asia has shifted from reliability to unpredictability, from generous giver to intended taker, from leadership to selfishness. Trump’s “me, me, me” foreign policy is seen as inconsistent with America’s long-standing leadership in the region.
Indeed, it is still not clear in which key area in Asia does President Trump intend to lead: regional architecture? Democracy and human rights? Infrastructure? Trade and investment? North Korea? Religious freedom?
President Trump’s strategic disorientation leaves more space for China to assume a more assertive role. Compared to President Trump, President Xi looks more steady, visionary and dependable. Yes, there is the contentious South China Sea issue, but for the time being this does seem to be blocking China’s relations with its neighbors.
Despite Xi’s stiff demeanor, clearly some Asians are beginning to develop greater comfort level with China compared to the US.
My American friends tell me to not judge America by the President but by the people. I totally agree. However, the reality is that the peoples of the world tend to see — and judge — America by what they see in the American president.
This is why JFK remains loved in much of the world, and why president George W. Bush is wildly popular in Africa. For the global citizens on the streets, the US president is the embodiment of America.
All my life I have heard theories about American decline — especially in the 1970s and the 1980s. I never believed it.
But this is the first time that I fear American decline may be happening. This “soft” decline would not be caused by military or economic factors, but due to the erosion of US leadership and political capital in parts of the world.
This being said, Asians are still counting on active US engagement and leadership.
Millions of Asians — including its formal and informal leaders, including me — have lived and studied in the US and are fond of America. They see the US not just as a superpower but as the most consequential country in the world — a country with a rich history, enormous resources and candoism to shape the course of the world.
Most Asians are also pragmatic — they do not care much who occupies the White House so long as they can work with that president. And while most Asian countries (including Indonesia) have strong ties to China, for a variety of reasons they also want to stay close to the US. Most of all, Asians want the US and China to get along and avoid confrontation.
The good thing about President Trump’s first Asia tour is the low expectations surrounding it — from fellow Asian leaders and from the American people.
While he has met a few Asian leaders bilaterally at the White House, this Asia trip is important to show that President Trump can perform well in a forum with scores of Asian leaders around the table.
He will learn that respect from fellow leaders cannot be forced — it must be earned. As with any new kid on the block, President Trump is also well advised to do more listening than talking in the East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) retreat.
After all, in Asian cultures, humility is part of leadership.