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MANILA — U.S. President Donald Trump has, at the last minute, skipped the plenary session of the 18-nation East Asia Summit with events running behind schedule.
Trump instead headed to Air Force One to leave the Philippines. The plane lifted off from Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, more than 30 minutes earlier than had been planned.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was called on to stand in for Trump at the summit.
White House officials explained that Trump said what he intended to say at the summit during an earlier lunch for leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A major reason for adding an additional day in the Philippines to Trump’s schedule had been to allow him to attend the East Asia Summit, a key regional strategic dialogue.
Trump concluded his five-nation, 12-day trip to Asia with no major policy announcements but declared it “a tremendously successful trip,” noting “I’ve made a lot of friends at the highest level.”
Open for trade
Trump also said his trip had resulted in at least $300 billion, possibly triple that figure, of deal agreements, but he did not elaborate.
“We’ve explained that the United States is open for trade, but we want reciprocal trade, we want fair trade for the United States,” Trump told reporters at the Philippines International Convention Center, shortly before his departure from the country, blaming past U.S. administrations for allowing the country “to be taken advantage of.”
During the trip, Trump re-emphasized that his administration rejects multi-national trade pacts, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, in favor of one-to-one economic agreements.
“I think the fruits of our labor are going to be incredible, whether it’s security of our nations, whether its security of the world or whether it’s trade. And it’s going to really amount to a lot,” Trump explained on Tuesday.
The president said a major announcement about his trip will be made at the White House on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday.
Observers are giving the visit mixed reviews.
In Asia, Trump “made clear that there can be no separating economic and defense issues. This remains true even as the one-time U.S. ‘pivot to Asia’ gives way to a U.S. business pivot to Asia,” Curtis Chin, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, told VOA.
But former Obama administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice contends Trump’s trip leaves the United States “more isolated and in retreat, handing leadership of the newly christened ‘Indo-Pacific’ to China on a silver platter.”
After a solid start in Japan and South Korea, “in China the wheels began to come off his diplomatic bus,” she writes in an opinion column in the New York Times. “The Chinese leadership played President Trump like a fiddle, catering to his insatiable ego and substituting pomp and circumstance for substance.”
Chin, now an Asia Fellow at the non-partisan Milken Institute, a non-profit economic think tank, sees it differently.
“Amidst uncertainty over how a non-diplomat, non-politician president might perform on the diplomatic stage, the U.S. President more than exceeded expectations,” said Chin. “In basketball parlance, this first Asia trip was a slam dunk for Trump. The challenge now remains for the United States to build on Trump’s visit to Asia by building on relationships and strengthening alliances in Asia, particularly amidst China’s continued rise.”
“There has been criticism that the trip was not actually substantial in terms of concrete output. But that is not President Trump’s style,” Nicholas Fang, Executive Director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “His bilateral meetings, for example in Japan and China, are largely intended to show incremental rapport and relationship building.”
Activists decry that Trump appears to have eliminated human rights as a core element of American foreign policy.
“By doing so, he’s decided to throw in with the likes of China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin for whom foreign policy only matters for what benefits they can extract from it,” Phil Robertson, deputy director in Asia for Human Rights Watch, tells VOA. “The idea that somehow the U.S. had a special role in protecting human rights and democracy around the world is now as dead and buried as all of the Duterte drug war victims that Trump declined with discuss in Manila.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday told reporters the issue of human rights did come up in Trump’s talks with Duterte. But the Philippines president’s spokesman insisted it did not.
Trump, shortly before departing Manila, said the U.S. relationship with the Philippines had been “horrible” but as a result of his visit “now we have a very, very strong relationship for the Philippines.
He said that is more important for strategic relations than trade calling the Philippines “the most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint.”
A senior U.S. administration official told VOA News that “we didn’t come here to lecture like President Obama did,” adding that Trump, however, was assertive in private on several key topics in talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping.