Had it been a normal week in Washington (which seems like an increasingly quaint disclaimer), we would all probably be talking about President Donald Trump’s upcoming trip to Asia. We would be discussing what the administration should be looking to achieve in our relations with this crucial region.
Instead, the distractions have been unrelenting. Instead of talking about our foreign policy priorities, the media’s attention has moved with breathtaking speed from the the Jeff Flake rebellion, Big Tech getting grilled by Congress, then onward into the Robert Mueller III bombshell indictments, and then the awful terror attack in New York City, which set off another Trump tweetstorm. Who knows what other new narrativestomorrow will bring?
Blow the foghorns. This trip deserves attention. The President is scheduled to spend 12 days visiting five countries (Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Philippines), his longest foreign tour to date in his presidency, taking place right at a moment of game-changing tensions in the region. It bears mentioning that this is also the longest trip to Asia by any US president since George H. W. Bush. Yet there is still a high-level of uncertainty over the president’s policy toward the region, seemingly both within and outside of the administration. Here are five of the top priorities to watch during this pivotal trip.
1) Containing the North Korea threat
During Trump’s visit, US allies will be seeking reassurances of Washington’s commitment to the region’s security, while looking for a firm and consistent show of solidarity to contain North Korea’s nuclear threats. Trump has had a habit of making bellicose statements toward Pyongyang and its leadership that have shaken the confidence of many allies. It has also become difficult to present a united front against North Korean aggression when at the same time Trump has indicated that South Korea and Japan should be shouldering a greater weight in terms of defending the region – a fact that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has campaigned on to modify the country’s anti-war constitution. In a recent episode on Altamar, our foreign policy podcast, we spoke with experts Jeffrey Lewis and Evan Osnos on what Trump needs to do maintain peace in the region, and both found his strategy to be lacking in consistency.
During this trip, Trump will also need to work to restore trust in South Korea, where the US still does not have an ambassador and where the administration has said it wants to eliminate its free trade deal. There is serious concern in Seoul that they are being looked over – a phenomenon coined by the media as the “Korea passing.”
2) Addressing Chinese military expansion
US allies in Asia are seeking a clearer signal from the Trump administration on how they intend to manage the growing tensions in the South China Sea as Beijing continues to expand its presence and territory. Look at the juxtaposition of the two presidents: China’s Xi Jingping has massively consolidated his authority, while Trump is seen to be arriving in Asia at a moment of weakness and vulnerability. Following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments on China’s “provocative actions” in the Sea, Chinese diplomats have drawn a line in the sand. This week Ambassador Cui Tiankai said, “I don’t think it will really serve the interests of these countries if their aim is to sort of contain China … I don’t think anybody would be able to contain China.”
As Elizabeth C. Economy writes on CFR, the Xi-Trump meetings will likely emphasize highly personal, emotional relations, but in terms of any sort of “grand bargain” on North Korea, trade, or the South China Sea, it is highly unlikely that Xi would have much incentive to give much ground. As Ryan Hass of Brookings has noted, “”Xi’s goal will be for Trump to leave Beijing satisfied that he was accorded due respect and convinced that he should continue pursuing a constructive, results-based approach to China (…).”
3) Defending US trade interests
Trump has repeatedly voiced his personal admiration for Xi Jinping, but his comments on the $347 billion trade deficit have been less warm. In a meeting with reporters this week Trump called the trade deficit with China “embarrassing” and “horrible,” and then went on to generally comment that “every” US trade deal is “disastrous.”
The Trump administration has said that they want to work bilaterally and reduce trade deficits, presumably to help American business business and workers. But the “America first” doctrine will not be helpful in creating a broader “Indo-Pacific” grouping of nations – that’s a multilateralism play, inconsistent with other stated goals.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump pulled the United States out of this past January, was generally seen by many the correct strategy for Washington to pursue its trade interests in the region, but now the US will increasingly address disputes bilaterally. On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, Trump’s delegation will seek to advance numerous ambitious goals – such as lowering Japanese tariffs on US meat imports (which were recently hiked to 50%), getting South Korea to lift limits on US auto imports (capped at 25,000), while also looking to push back China’s state subsidies on steel and other industries which have had a distorting impact on global markets. But Trump is likely to find that negotiating alone may not deliver the kind of deals that he campaigned on. Expect some big-sounding investments, some memorandum of understandings signed, but less movement on structural rules such as tariffs or import caps.
4) Rebalancing without losing Southeast Asia
Shinzo Abe is widely regarded to have developed the most promising personal relationship with Trump in the region, and is likely to have his ear on his developing view of the region. Already we have seen the administration begin to echo cues to Abe’s long-time vision of the “strategic diamond” of Asia’s maritime democracies. The Trump administration has already themed this Asia trip as framed by their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” a vision which is hard to implement when they are lacking a plan for free and open trade in the region. But there’s another big risk – that by focusing on a relations with a handful large democracies, the United States could experience a setback in its standing among key Southeast Asian allies. This is compounded by Trump’s decision to skip the East Asia Summit in the Philippines in order to go home earlier, which signals to many of these nations they had better start looking to China as the rule maker going forward.
“By not attending the East Asia Summit his first year in office, even though he will already be nearby, Trump is signaling a lack of interest in the organization and the project it represents,” Josh Rogin writes in the Washington Post.
Countering that perception will take some creative measures.
5) Don’t roll over on human rights
It is commonly perceived that the Trump administration does not envision itself as a leading defender of human rights. The administration seems to argue that Washington should fall back from its historical defense of values and instead conduct a transactional foreign policy based on self-interest. This would be a mistake for our standing in the region. Trump will have an opportunity at the ASEAN Summit to lead a condemnation of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He would also be very wise to raise US concerns with the Philippines over the alleged extra-judicial killings taking place in Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war, among other pressing issues in the region. Moral authority has value in our ability to motivate collective action, and right now, we are losing it. As Michael H. Fuchs, Shannon McKeown, and Brian Harding write in Foreign Policy, there is a strategic cost to ignoring human rights, as Trump’s support for strongman tactics in the region, from Philippines to Thailand to Cambodia, could leave Washington associated with increasingly unpopular autocrats. “Whether Washington publicly stands for human rights and democracy matters. For the sake of both the plight of individuals in the region and for U.S. national interests, the Trump administration must not cede this ground,” they write.
There are of course many other details regarding our engagement in the region, but these five themes are most likely to be the storylines – provided that Trump sticks to his advisors’ scripts and doesn’t improvise. But 12 days in five countries would be grueling for anybody, so we’ll see what happens, and with an investigation hanging a dark cloud over the visit, I wouldn’t rule out some “Trumpian” surprises.