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Trump’s Asia trip retraces 200 years of American diplomacy in the Pacific

On November 10, U.S. President Donald Trump will visit the thriving tourist town of Da Nang in central Vietnam, where he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ forum and CEO summit.

Da Nang is just 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam and the scene of fierce fighting during the Vietnam War. The battle for Hue was a key segment of the 1968 Tet Offensive that ultimately led to the American withdrawal from Vietnam.

When Trump travels to Vietnam, he will become the fourth president in a row to visit the country, and the first post-war president to do so in his first year (or even his first term). Everyone will be aware of the symbolism of a U.S. president seeking closer ties with a country that, half a century ago, was the site of such a vicious conflict. Few will be aware that the first U.S. president to seek diplomatic relations with Vietnam was Andrew Jackson, way back in 1833.


Seeking diplomacy

Jackson sent a diplomatic mission led by the Massachusetts merchant Edmund Roberts aboard the USS Peacock to negotiate a commercial treaty with Vietnam. The ship had too deep a draft to port at Hue, so it set out instead for Da Nang, which had a deeper harbor. The Peacock missed Da Nang in a storm and ended up stranded at Vung Lam Bay some 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the south.

The isolationist government of Vietnam wanted nothing to do with the Americans, so Roberts sailed on to Bangkok, where he signed America’s first free trade agreement in Asia.

The 1833 U.S.-Thailand Treaty of Amity and Commerce, as amended, has been in force for 184 years, making it perhaps America’s second-oldest treaty relationship in continuous operation (after the 1815 treaty with the United Kingdom that ended the War of 1812).


China has always been the prize

Then — as now — Thailand and Vietnam were mere sideshows. The real prize was China. At the founding of the Republic in 1789, the United States was already the second-largest trading country in China (after the United Kingdom), and by the 1850s it was the largest. The UK might have had its toehold on Hong Kong, but American merchants and missionaries were dominant in Shanghai, a city “destined to become the greatest city of Eastern Asia, and most intimately of all connected with America,” as the U.S. Minister to China Humphrey Marshall put it in an 1853 dispatch home to Washington.

In the second half of the 19th century, the major European powers wanted to carve China into colonies, but they faced stiff resistance from the United States. The U.S. insisted on the famous open door policy of free trade with an independent and sovereign China.

Fast forward 100 years, and in 2001 U.S. President Bill Clinton paved the way for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. The short Communist interlude was the exception in American relations with China. Free trade and deep engagement have been the two-century norm.


Laying the groundwork

The first serving U.S. President to make an Asian trip was Dwight Eisenhower, who visited Manila, Taipei and Seoul in June 1960. With the presidential election in full swing, by that point he was already a lame duck. Lyndon Johnson’s trips to the region in 1966 and 1967 inevitably focused on shoring up support for the Vietnam War, as did Richard Nixon’s 1969 tour.

Nixon didn’t return to Asia until his famous 1972 trip to China. His weeklong summit with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai is justly remembered as the second opening of China. Nixon visited Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai. The culmination of the trip was the February 27 Shanghai Communique that set the tone for U.S.-China relations for the next 45 years. Official U.S. policy toward China still follows the precepts laid down by Nixon in 1972.

For all today’s talk of crisis and conflict, U.S. policy has consistently promoted stability in the Asia-Pacific region for 200 years. From new kid on the block to global superpower, the United States has always sought to keep the economic door open while maintaining the geopolitical status quo.

Trump is almost certain to reiterate those timeless American positions as he tours the region over the next two weeks.

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: