Four reasons Trump's Asia trip is so important
November 4 at 6:00 AM
President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together after their meetings at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 7. On Friday, Trump left for Hawaii, and he will continue on to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Trump is expected to focus on efforts to build consensus on North Koreaâs nuclear threat and meet with Asian leaders to discuss trade. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
As Donald Trump embarks on his first presidential trip to Asia, will we see a clearer strategy emerge on U.S. foreign policy in Asia? Security issues related to North Korea, along with U.S. trade interests, will top the discussion agenda.
In the first 10 months of the Trump pr esidency, contradictory statements from the president and his advisers have created uncertainty among Asian leaders. The formal U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, once the emerging cornerstone of U.S. economic strategy in Asia, has left policymakers and business leaders across the Pacific concerned about the future of trade. And key Asia positions at the State Department and the Defense Department remain unfilled, adding to the mixed messages coming out of Washington.
With an 11-day itinerary including bilateral and multilateral meetings in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, this will be Trumpâs longest foreign trip to date. Here are four reasons this trip is so important:
1) Clarification on where U.S. foreign policy is headed
Trumpâs trip may shed further light on the direction of U.S. engagement in Asia. Fears linger in Asia that Trumpâs âAmerica firstâ vision may result i n U.S. disengagement from the region.
Other than TPP, the fears of U.S. disengagement have not yet borne out. To date, Trump has not deviated greatly from the Obama administrationâs âAsia pivot,â which was in part intended to reassure allies about the continued U.S. presence in the region. A White House news release announcing the upcoming trip stated that Trumpâs travels would demonstrate âcontinued commitment to the alliances and partnerships of the United States in the region.â
In a part of the world where showing up and âface timeâ matter greatly, Trumpâs multicountry itinerary is significant. At the very least, it signals that his administration remains vested in the region. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also traveled to Asia in October, attending the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting and making stops in Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines.
2) A chance to reinforce U.S. ties with Asia
Trumpâs Asia trip arrive s on the heels of reinvigorated domestic leadership in Japan and China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abeâs decisive electoral victory Oct. 22 may give him a mandate to expand Japanâs regional security role. Abe is already carrying the TPP mantle forward with the 11 remaining partners in the absence of the United States. Some Asian countries, in fact, see Abe as the âadult in the roomâ when it comes to regional governance.
[Shinzo Abe won big on Sunday. This is what it means for Japanâs national security policy.]
Chinaâs 19th Party Congress in mid-October cemented President Xi Jinpingâs leadership â" and unveiled a more assertive regional and global role for China. Xi spoke of a new âbalanceâ in Asia and announced Chinaâs long-term vision of being a âglobal leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence.â Xiâs proclamation made it clear that China will seek the opportunity to fill any power vacuum.
Trump is ex pected to strengthen his rapport with both Xi and Abe, and also look to deepen ties with other Asian allies. He has hosted several Asian leaders in his first year in office, most recently Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In June, Trump hosted South Koreaâs newly elected President Moon Jae-in at the White House. Trump stepped back from plans to visit Koreaâs demilitarized zone next week, but he will meet with Moon in Seoul.
3) Forging a stronger consensus on North Koreaâs nuclear threat
With Moon, Xi, Abe and other leaders at the ASEAN meeting, Trump will look for allies and partners to âstrengthen the international resolve to confront the North Korean threatâ and move toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Trump acknowledged Chinaâs support in tightening sanctions on North Korea but believes Beijing must do more to persuade North Korea to take steps toward denuclearization. Trump has an opportunity to make this appeal dire ctly to Xi.
[Xi Jinping just made it clear where Chinaâs foreign policy is headed]
Trump will also push Moon, who continues to look for small opportunities for engagement with North Korea, to apply more pressure against the regime in Pyongyang. Trump will probably reinforce this message with ASEAN leaders â" collective action against North Korea will be an easier selling point than ASEAN rallying against Beijingâs South China Sea claims.
4) The chance to negotiate hard on U.S. trade interests
Trump has been incessant in his criticism of U.S. trade imbalances and will no doubt hammer that message hard at the APEC summit in Vietnam. With Japan, Trump seeks a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), a proposal raised in his first meeting with Abe at Mar-a-Lago in February. Abe may not reject a bilateral FTA outright, but it would be at odds with his hopes to keep alive the TPP deal, which Trump referred to as a âdisasterâ and âra peâ against the American people.
Trump will also lobby Moon and the National Assembly for an improved bilateral trade deal with South Korea. The two sides are renegotiating the 2012 KORUS FTA. Trumpâs close associates have persuaded him not to scrap what he referred to as a âhorribleâ trade agreement. However, the president may make a point of highlighting the widening U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea, which grew from $13.2 billion to $27.6 billion since KORUS.
Likewise, Trump will address perennial trade issues with China and call on Xi to ârectifyâ barriers to U.S. commercial engagement in China. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will lead a delegation of 29 U.S. CEOs during Trumpâs visit to China, reinforcing the White Houseâs determination to level the playing field on trade with the largest U.S. trading partner. The White House has made no secret of its wish to rein in the large U.S. goods deficit with China, estimated at more than $300 bi llion in 2016.
Itâs an ambitious agenda, a lot of miles and a lot of diplomacy for 11 days.
Andrew Yeo is associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He is completing a book manuscript on the evolution of East Asian regional architecture, and is co-editor (with Matthew Green) of âLiving in an Age of Mistrust.âSource: Google News