Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Five countries in 11 days. On Donald Trump’s Asian tour, he’ll have to convince many of the Asian countries about the White House’s intentions in the region. (At the APEC Summit in Vietnam to be held on Nov. 10, he will likely also meet Vladimir Putin.)
Washington needs to reconfigure trust with its allies, but in recent months, given the excessive behaviors of the U.S. president and his “America First” doctrine, the policy of the world’s top power toward Asia seems confusing. Of course, China is not among the doubters.
Trump’s team has tried to reassure their hosts about the White House’s plans and the behavior the president will maintain during the tour: no Twitter statements and a higher level of focus than Trump usually seems to concede (or have), in addition to the need to avoid behaviors considered harmful by Asian partners.
As The Washington Post wrote, Asia is a complicated continent for Trump. Asians hold high importance in the concept of not losing face, much more so in public, a cornerstone which is hard to understand for a president who seems to enjoy being completely without etiquette.
It will therefore be a difficult journey, especially for members of the administration who, according to reports, don’t think Trump is prepared for what he will have to deal with.
It should also be said that there are not many certainties among Asian leaders, especially Japan and South Korea. Albeit in a different way, they are wondering how to get ahead of Washington on the management of the North Korean crisis, the first point on the Asian agenda.
Trump’s first stop is Japan. Today he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then will visit the Yokota military base. Tokyo is looking for public reassurance about U.S. military defense of Japan, all the more so under the threat of Pyongyang. Trump’s moves since he started his term include derailing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That did not please Japan, which nevertheless remains the strongest ally in the region. But even Tokyo is asking Trump to reinvigorate Japanese trust in their American ally.
The ambience will be completely different in the meeting Trump will hold with the South Korean leader Moon Jae-in. Even though Trump is honored to be the seventh U.S. president to be able to speak at the South Korean National Assembly, it is understood that the bilateral meeting with Moon will be complicated.
South Korea had given strong signals of wanting to deal with and achieve a diplomatic solution to the Korean crisis. Pyongyang’s tests and Trump’s muscularity ended up fading “Seoul’s spring” and also led Moon into more intransigent positions.
But the chickens soon came to roost: Trump has asked Seoul to fully pay for THAAD, the anti-missile system that Washington wanted to deploy when Seoul did not have a legitimate government and Moon had already said he did not like it.
There is therefore a dilemma: South Korea wants to get rid of the excessive American presence but Moon can’t hold without Trump’s support. The challenge is to find balance to avoid getting Beijing nervous. Meanwhile, South Korean diplomats seem to have persuaded Trump not to go to the demilitarized zone, thus avoiding a symbolic gesture that could have caused problems with Pyongyang.
To demonstrate his great friendship with China’s Xi Jinping — “a very good person,” as Trump defined him — Trump has used another of his hyperbole compliments to flatter Xi for his success at the Communist Party Congress. He called him “the king of China.” And Trump will actually come to Beijing emboldened with this (assumed or real) understanding with the Chinese president.
The Korean crisis is the most relevant topic, but it seems that the presidential team is working mostly on economic issues. The trade deficit is still huge for Washington (the U.S. imports far more from China that what it exports): Trump called it “embarrassing.”
Meanwhile, Beijing will play two sides trying to balance requests and concessions, certainly insisting for a diplomatic solution to the Korean crisis, reinforced by the messages exchanged on the Beijing-Pyongyang route registered at the Communist Party Congress.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.