When Donald Trump arrived in Singapore for the first time as President of the United States, he found himself in the middle of an intense diplomatic battle with another world leader. While Trump was there, he had a public spat with Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Afterward, Trump took to Twitter, complaining about the “bad deal” he felt he had been offered and the “poor communication” that led up to it. But did he cross a line by attacking a head of state? Was he trying to bully another world leader? Or was this just a case of pique that ended up on the social media platform? Let’s take a closer look.
Trump’s Visit To Singapore
On June 12, Trump arrived in Singapore, where he was scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Lee. The US president was greeted at the airport by Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and her team. He was then driven a short distance to the Palace Hotel, where he was to stay during his visit. As the convoy of cars carrying Trump and his delegation pulled up to the hotel, reporters and photographers from around the world were there to capture the moment. Several international newspapers and broadcasters had dispatched their journalists to report on the historic meeting between the American president and the leader of the country he had once vilified as a “terrific guy” who was “strong, smart and focused.”
The New York Times was one of the first news organizations to report on President Trump’s trip to Singapore, describing it as “a groundbreaking summit” that would “dramatically reshape” the diplomatic landscape in the region. The paper went on to say that Trump planned to “embrace the challenge of transforming” relations with Beijing and that he would discuss “denuclearization and other sensitive matters.”
This was a striking shift from the combative style of Trump’s campaign, during which he had threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and ridiculed Chinese president Xi Jinping as a “strongman” who “doesn’t have to abide by the rules of normal politics.” While in office, Trump has sought to find common ground with Xi on trade and other issues, and has praised Chinese economic and political reforms. Nevertheless, his administration has also imposed stringent penalties on Chinese businesses for alleged infringement of US intellectual property, and Trump has threatened to use more trade measures if Xi does not comply. Trump has also maintained a strained relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom he has praised as a “strong leader” and “great negotiator.”
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong On Trump
During his visit, Trump held several meetings with Singaporean officials and business leaders. He had lunch and dinner with PM Lee. He also spoke with Singaporean President Halimah Yacob, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan. Reporters were not allowed to attend any of these meetings, but were able to watch Trump’s actions and words through a live stream of the events on the Palace’s private indoor pool. At a press conference following his bilateral meeting with Singaporean officials, Trump was asked about his relationship with PM Lee. He said that he and the prime minister “had a very good relationship” and that “we agreed on almost everything.” He went on to say that they had spoken about the importance of economic and political ties between the US and Singapore, and added that he would “absolutely” come back to the island state if he becomes president. According to the White House pool report, Trump reiterated that he “had a very good relationship” with PM Lee and that it was “a very productive meeting.”
Then, a few days later, Trump took to Twitter to complain about the “terrific” deal he felt he had been offered in Singapore and the “poor communication” that led up to it. While he was there, he had a public spat with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. On June 14, US reporters were called to the White House pool to watch as Trump and the leader of the country he had once vilified as a “terrific guy” had a “war of words” that was subsequently covered by the international media. Trump tweeted:
- “Didn’t expect to feel so lonely feeling so good about something.”
- “I guess I’ll have to keep talking about the wonderful benefits of the Singapore deal!”
- “I met many great people [in Singapore] – including the prime minister, who is a very talented man.”
The tweet triggered a furious response from Singaporean officials. According to a Foreign Ministry statement, Lee called Trump’s Twitter posts “insulting,” “unacceptable,” and “bordering on the racist.” He also requested “reasonably convenient time” for their conversation, saying that “civility is a precondition for substantive dialogue.” The statement went on to say:
- “[Trump’s] ongoing criticism of Singaporean leadership is unacceptable.”
- “[He] is denigrating a country and its leaders, which is damaging to the bilateral relationship.”
- “[He] is demonstrating an alarming ignorance of the basic geography of the region.”
- “[Trump] cannot continue to criticize Singaporean leaders and expect to maintain a working relationship with them.”
The spat between Trump and Lee was just one of many diplomatic controversies that were broadcast live on the President’s Twitter account. Several other world leaders were also caught in the crosshairs of the newly-elected American president. On June 18, Trump tweeted that he was “having a very good day” and that he was “being praised” by people all over the world for what he had done. Later that day, he tweeted again, saying that he had had a “GREAT” day and that the “WORLD is watching [him] very carefully!”
On June 20, the US president tweeted that he had had a “fantastic” trip to Singapore and that the city-state was “deservedly” proud of what he had done. The next day, Trump was asked about his relationship with Xi during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The two world leaders held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. While there, Trump praised Xi as “a great leader” and said that they had “an incredible relationship.” He added that their talks had been “very friendly” and that he looked forward to continuing the relationship. However, he also said that “it was very good to see Prime Minister Abe” and that he hoped to “develop a personal relationship” with him. During their meeting, Trump had a private conversation with Xi about trade and economic issues. Afterward, he told reporters that the two men had “a good dialogue,” and that he was “looking to be a little bit more open” on trade. Nevertheless, he added that “there is a lot of potential” for cooperation, “and very good things can happen” if the right processes are followed.
On July 6, Trump took to Twitter to complain about the “terrible” treatment he had received from the foreign leaders he had met while in Singapore. He wrote:
- “Sovereign power: Not fair that while in Singapore I had to listen to a foreign leader lecture on respect.
- “[Sovereign power] is a right that all heads of state should cherish.”
- “[Sovereign power] is not a Western value.”
- “[Sovereign power] is not fair.”