Donald Trump in Asia: a lookback at key events in region from 2017-2019

Amir Hussain
·Senior Reporter
·9 min read
A man buys a newspaper featuring a photo of US President-elect Donald Trump in Beijing
A man buys a newspaper featuring a photo of US President-elect Donald Trump in Beijing on 10 November 2016. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE — One of the first things that US President Donald Trump did when he was newly elected was to withdraw the United States from what would have been the world's largest trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – in January 2017.

The move was part of Trump's "America First" stance and seemed to be an about-turn on the Obama administration's “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.

Amid a resurgence in US isolationism – arguably unprecedented since the years between World War I and World War II – Yahoo News Singapore takes a look back at some notable events marking the 45th US President's engagement with this region over the past few years.

US First Lady Melania Trump, Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako watch as US President Donald Trump inspects a guard of honour at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
US First Lady Melania Trump, Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako watch as US President Donald Trump inspects a guard of honour at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. (Photo: Getty Images)

Asia Tour, 2017

In November 2017, Trump embarked on the longest trip to Asia by an American president in more than a quarter century.

His 12-day itinerary included stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

In Japan, Trump golfed and ate hamburgers with prime minister Shinzo Abe. He also met Emperor Akihito.

The President said Tokyo would shoot Pyongyang’s missiles out of the sky, even as he praised Japan for buying American military hardware.

Meanwhile, Trump was treated to a lavish state dinner in South Korea and addressed the National Assembly, where he railed against the North Korean regime and urged all countries to isolate the country.

In Beijing, Trump’s meeting with China's President Xi Jinping was billed as a "state visit-plus". Aside from bilateral trade relations – the two countries signed business deals worth more than US$250 billion – Trump and Xi also discussed the Korean peninsula.

Over in Vietnam, Trump attended the APEC Summit, where he said he was only interested in bilateral deals that would not disadvantage the US. At the same event, Xi stressed multilateralism and said globalisation was an irreversible trend.

Meanwhile in Manila, the US President attended the Asean Summits. The Philippines held the rotating chair of the 10-member regional grouping.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with US President Donald Trump at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa on 12 June 2018. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with US President Donald Trump at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa on 12 June 2018. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore, 2018

A year-and-a-half into his presidency, Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June 2018, in a historic meeting between the leaders of the two countries that fought against each other during the Korean War.

The five-hour meeting, dubbed the Singapore Summit, placed the tiny island state in the global media spotlight and came amid a flurry of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea as well as an exchange of insults between the two leaders the previous year that sparked war concerns.

Trump and Kim signed a joint statement agreeing, among other things, to work toward a denuclearised Korean peninsula, without mentioning specifics.

In their statement, the two leaders promised to “build a lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean peninsula.

The joint statement also said the US and North Korea agreed to recover the remains of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action for repatriation.

However, Trump and Kim made no mention of the elephants in the room: UN sanctions on North Korea and a formal end to the Korean War, which killed nearly five million people between 1950 and 1953, and divided the Korean peninsula.

The US President later promised to end war games with ally South Korea at a press conference, catching Seoul, the Pentagon and other US allies off guard.

“We will be stopping the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump told reporters, adding that he wanted to withdraw US troops from South Korea “at some point”.

Following the historic Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, progress on North Korea's denuclearisation has stalled, with both sides accusing each other of acting in bad faith
Following the historic Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, progress on North Korea's denuclearisation stalled, with both sides accusing each other of acting in bad faith. (Photo: AFP)

Hanoi Summit, 2019

In late February last year, Trump and Kim followed up with another meeting, this time in Vietnam.

But the two-day summit was cut short with no deal after talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in exchange for the easing of sanctions collapsed.

Each side sought to blame the other for intransigence. Trump insisted that Pyongyang demanded an end to all sanctions while the North claimed it had only wanted some of the measures eased.

“It was all about the sanctions,” Trump said at a press conference. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn't do that.”

Meanwhile, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said at a separate press conference that Pyongyang had sought only a partial lifting of sanctions “related to people's livelihoods and unrelated to military sanctions”.

He added that North Korea had offered dismantling all of its main nuclear site at Yongbyon by engineers from both countries.

Nonetheless, the two countries said they would continue further negotiations.

In this file photo taken on June 28, 2019, China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US President Donald Trump before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
In this file photo taken on June 28, 2019, China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US President Donald Trump before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Osaka G20 Summit, 2019

Two-and-a-half years after taking office, Trump attended the annual Group of 20 (G20) big economies Summit in Osaka from 28 to 29 June 2019.

The US President also held bilateral meetings on the sides with the leaders of Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia.

But all eyes were on the high-stakes Trump-Xi meeting, which was held a year into a trade war marked by tit-for-tat tariffs between the US and China.

Just prior to the summit, Trump said he was prepared to impose tariffs on virtually all Chinese imports not already subject to US levies.

Tensions between the world’s two largest economies rose sharply the previous month, after the Trump administration accused China of having reneged on promises to make structural economic changes during months of trade talks.

On May 10, Trump raised tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese goods up to 25 per cent and took steps to levy duties on an additional US$300 billion in Chinese imports. Beijing retaliated with tariff hikes on a revised list of US$60 billion in US goods.

But a truce was reached after the bilateral meeting, allaying investors’ fears of a further deterioration in the relationship between Washington and Beijing.

In his opening remarks at the meeting with Trump, Xi said, “China and United States both benefit from cooperation and lose in a confrontation. Cooperation is better than friction, and dialogue is better than confrontation.”

Trump later said that it was a “very, very good meeting, better than expected”.

US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un walk on North Korean soil toward South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom on 30 June 2019. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un walk on North Korean soil toward South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom on 30 June 2019. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Korea DMZ Summit, 2019

Following the G20 Osaka Summit, the US and the two Koreas held a one-day summit at the demilitarised zone (DMZ).

Trump had been scheduled to only visit South Korea on 30 June. But in Osaka the previous day, Trump tweeted, “If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

It was later revealed that Kim had deployed flattery and florid prose in diplomatically courting Trump via personal letters.

"I also believe that the deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force," Kim said in a letter sent three weeks before the DMZ Summit.

"Only you and I, working together, can resolve the issues between our two countries and end nearly 70 years of hostility," Trump wrote to Kim ahead of the meeting. "It will be historic!"

On 30 June, Trump became the first sitting US president to step foot in North Korea when he decided to briefly cross the DMZ at Kim’s invitation and both leaders shook hands.

The duo then crossed over to the South to meet South Korea's President Moon Jae-in for a brief three-way chat, before Trump and Kim held a closed-door meeting for nearly an hour.

It was also the second time since 1953 that a North Korean leader had stepped into the South, after the inter-Korean summit in April 2018

“To cross that line was a great honour,” Trump later said of his visit to the North, adding, “It's a great day for the world.”

Meanwhile, Kim said, “This is an expression of his willingness to leave behind the past and work towards a new future.”

However, despite the third talk to take place in just a year between the two leaders, there was no indication of any real progress towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Trump said he had “plenty of time” and was in “no rush” to reach a deal. The US President also said he had invited Kim to the White House “anytime he wants to do it”.

Navy officers from the US and Asean countries participate in the inauguration ceremony of ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise in Sattahip, Thailand, on 2 September 2019. (Photo: AP)
Navy officers from the US and Asean countries participate in the inauguration ceremony of Asean-US Maritime Exercise in Sattahip, Thailand, on 2 September 2019. (Photo: AP)

US-Asean Joint Naval Exercise, 2019

On 2 September last year, the US and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations began a five-day naval exercise for the first time.

The naval drills came at a time of stepped-up US engagement in the region and tensions between Beijing and rival claimant states in the South China Sea.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a trip to Thailand the previous month, urged Asean countries to push back against Chinese “coercion” in the disputed waters.

Four Asean countries – Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines – have rival claims with Beijing over territory in the area, which China claims almost entirely.

The naval exercise began at the Sattahip Naval Base in Thailand and ended in Singapore. It involved eight warships, four aircraft and more than 1,000 personnel.

Analysts said it was the latest effort by the regional grouping to rebalance its military engagement with Beijing and Washington, while avoiding being seen to tilt towards either of the two powers in the region.

Asean had held a two-day naval drill with China the previous year.

Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at http://t.me/YahooSingapore

Follow Yahoo News’s coverage of the 2020 United States election here.

Related stories:

Yahoo News/YouGov poll: The tide turns against Trump as Biden surges to his largest-ever lead among likely voters

Why Beijing may want to keep Trump in the White House

Two in three Singaporeans want Biden as next US President: YouGov survey