WASHINGTON -- President Trump's lengthy trip to Asia was top-notch theater -- much like a matinee-to-late show all rolled up into one performance -- but it was hard to find even one gleaming nugget of new foreign policy wisdom in all those hours.
We saw once again the degree to which this president just can't take success for an answer. He made a respectably good speech in South Korea, and then went on to rub shoulders with Vladimir Putin and say all the wrong things.
Our intel officials were "political hacks!" he told American correspondents, and Putin had not at all intervened in American elections. But then, and not even slightly embarrassed, the very next day he said he only BELIEVED that Putin BELIEVED that his people had not intervened. (And if I were to tell you what I BELIEVE about Trump BELIEVING about what Putin BELIEVES, you probably would not BELIEVE me at all. BELIEVE me!)
But the visit did make clear that President Xi Jinping, with quiet determination and a sense of purposefulness lost in America today, is now replacing this U.S. president on the world stage. And this modern-age "chinaman" sure knows his American.
President Xi didn't just roll out the red carpet for President Trump this time; he gave Trump the carpet in solid gold wrapping, with a toy panda on the side. Trump was treated to the first dinner for a foreign leader in the Forbidden City since the Communists took over in 1949. Trump loves this attention, and the Trumps responded, but in what turns out to be a contradictory way.
Video of President Trump's admittedly adorable granddaughter, Arabella, was shown in China singing in Mandarin Chinese. A cute tribute, for sure. The only thing was that she sang to "Uncle Xi." Strange how this reminded me of a day in Prague in the '90s at Radio Free Europe when the head of the British foreign office told me that Britain's problems with thinking of the maniacal Josef Stalin as a reasonable man began when Churchill started calling him "Uncle Joe."
But there was another story from the president's trip that got little attention, yet underlies everything that is happening in Southeast Asia.
Having served as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam for times between 1967 and 1970 for the Chicago Daily News, I was drawn to an article in The New York Times from Hanoi. From our old enemy! From the center of the little country that was only a "domino" to our foreign policy "thinkers" of the 1960s, who counseled that it would fall if we left Vietnam, knocking over all the non-Communist countries around it.
The article quotes a prominent Vietnamese major general critiquing the American presidential visit to Hanoi by saying: "I would like to give advice to the whole world, and especially to the United States, that you must be careful with China. Xi Jinping's ambitions are dangerous for the whole world. China uses its money to buy off many leaders, but none of its close allies, like North Korea, Pakistan or Cambodia, have done well. Countries that are close to America have done much better. We must ask: Why is this?"
Times South Asia correspondent Hannah Beech then quotes Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, retired director of Vietnam's Institute of Strategic Studies, as further noting that, in a lengthy address earlier this fall, Xi had called China a "great" or a "strong power" no fewer than 26 times.
Vietnam, the correspondent notes, "is worried about American inattention." This fear is reflected across Asia.
These comments from Hanoi were enough to leap out at me like a snake in the Garden of Eden. For they were saying our reason for fighting the Vietnam War was fallacious. And that the Trump presidency is exacerbating the problem.
Small countries in Asia are being pushed into China's voracious arms by the U.S. exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact that would have given 11 smaller economies an alternative to the Chinese-led economic order. TPP would have imposed international labor and government accountability standards on these small countries; now those checks on power are gone.
Prof. Nguyen Ngoc Anh of the Foreign Trade University in Hanoi adds: "As Vietnamese, we are always trying to find a way to balance China's power. For us, TPP isn't just an economic issue. It's also about geopolitics and social issues."
In sum, the trip unquestionably strengthened Russia and China, and the Trump policies that underlay it threw smaller economies like Vietnam's deeper under the big bus of China.
This is quite an accomplishment for a two-week trip around almost half of the world. But only if you're Russia or China.