The trip was a significant step for Trump, who had not ventured abroad since July, providing him with an opportunity to personally lean on countries in the region to do more to combat the rogue Asian nation, an issue that has become the President’s premier foreign policy focus.
But even as Trump sought to build consensus, he also stressed the need for countries in the region to remain sovereign, intimating to leaders in Asia that he will primarily focus on issues that impact the United States and not meddle in a foreign nation’s domestic affairs.
The shift remakes the United States’ approach to the world, putting more of a focus on trade and the economy while lessening the emphasis on issues like human rights and regional conflicts.
America’s changing role
Trump came to Asia with two primary objectives: Build a coalition around stopping North Korea and convince Asian markets to do business with the United States, even if he is ending sweeping trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
What became clear during Trump’s time abroad is that Trump’s hard-line economic nationalism — the “America First” rhetoric that got him elected president — could lead the United States to be left behind.
Not soon after, however, the nations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit moved on without Trump when trade ministers from the 11 remaining nations of the TPP — including Japan, Canada and Australia — agreed to core elements of a new trade agreement that excludes the United States.
The message — intended or not — was a rebuke of Trump, showing that countries in the region are less interested in bilateral agreements with the United States and happy to move on economically from Trump, who spent a bulk of his time in Asia touting forthcoming business deals with companies in the region.
To each his own — globally
In a region that was once a hotbed of proxy wars involving the United States, Trump urged Asian leaders to focus on their own countries and people, and to answer to no one outside their borders.
“We want our partners in the region to be strong, independent and prosperous, in control of their own destinies, and satellites to no one,” Trump said on Monday at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila.
The message: Focus on their own home and the United States will do the same.
This comports with Trump’s view that the United States should be less entangled around the world, but it is a departure from past administrations that used the power of the United States to apply diplomatic pressure on nations in the region.
Trump did not publicly mention human rights while visiting China, a country that has long restricted freedom of expression and cracked down harshly on dissidents. And he publicly avoided human rights when he met with Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial Philippine President who has publicly cheered on and inspired thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of a nationwide effort to get rid of drug users in the Philippines.
The message the Philippine officials took from that was simple: Trump won’t interfere with what we want to do.
Trump “appeared sympathetic,” Philippines presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, said after the meeting.
A similar message was received on Trump’s first foreign trip abroad when the President did not raise human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.
Flattery will get you everywhere
To Trump, one of the biggest takeaways of the trip was how well he has been received.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in commended Trump on his year-old election and the booming stock market, two of Trump’s favorite areas to brag about.
And in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a world leader who has played golf with Trump multiple times — joked that “when you play golf with someone not just once, but for two times, the person must be your favorite guy.”
Asian leaders banked on the fact that flattery works — and they were right.
Standing next to Australian and Japanese prime ministers in Manila, Trump boasted about the welcome he has received in Asia, likening it to “a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen.”
“That really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really, for our country,” Trump added.
Trump, for the most part, has moderated his tone with Asian leaders and avoided publicly pressing them on hot button issues. He has worked to build personal relationships with each leader, too.
In China, Trump even went back on several campaign comments when he said he didn’t blame the country for its trade deals with the United States.
“I don’t blame China,” Trump said. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
United on North Korea
Trump has struck a measured, but grave, tone on North Korea during his time in Asia, using the rouge nation as a unifying force for the region and hoping that those ties bind countries like China, South Korea and Japan together.
Trump’s argument in the region was that though countries in the region have differences, issues like North Korea — which Trump colorfully described as a “menace” throughout the trip — will provide the nations with a focal point they can work on together.
During a stinging speech in South Korea, Trump warned North Korea not to try the United States, arguing that any strike against the United States or its allies would be a “fatal miscalculation.”
The bellicose rhetoric is nothing new from Trump, but the fact that he lambasted North Korea only a few miles from its border signaled to countries that he has no intention of softening his approach.
At times, Trump even got personal with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader.
“North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned,” he said to Kim. “It is a hell that no person deserves.”
The gracious guest
Trump played along while abroad.
It is rare to see the President in anything other than a suit or golf attire, but while in Asia, he embraced some of the unique aspects of summits like APEC and ASEAN by sporting the traditional dress each host nation provides the world leaders.
In Vietnam, Trump wore a boxy, blue silk shirt for the so-called APEC family photo, keeping with a tradition started by the United States in 1993.
And in the Philippines, Trump wore a long sleeved, sheer barong, a traditional formal attire in the nation.
What was apparent during the trip was that Trump did not feel above jumping into the sometimes idiosyncratic traditions of these international summits.
Never was the clearer than when Trump got schooled on the “ASEAN-way handshake” during Monday’s opening of the event.
Standing on stage with the world leaders, Trump was instructed to do the traditional handshake, a cross body affair where a leaders left hand shakes the hand of the person to his right and the leader’s left hand go to the right.
Even thousands of miles from Washington, Russia continued to loom over Trump’s trip to Asia.
Trump talked with Putin three times during the APEC summit in Vietnam but the significance of the encounters outweighs their brevity: Afterward, Trump said he was done confronting Putin over his country’s election meddling, telling reporters that the inquiries are insulting to the Russian leader and hurting the United States’ ability to work with the country.
The meetings came amid a swirl of new steps in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into 2016 election meddling, including his first two indictments for two top Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from another.
Trump’s meetings with Putin are sure to color the tone and tenor of the Russia investigation going forward.
But what was clear in Asia is that Trump is not only over the inquiries, he now says they are hurting the United States.
“I can’t stand there and argue with him,” he added. “I’d rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I’d rather have him, you know, work with him on the Ukraine than standing and arguing.”