In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that North Korea would be the focus of the region's — and the world's — attention as the year comes to a close. North Korea, and its reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to the region, will certainly be a key part of the trip.
U.S. President Donald Trump began the first leg of his Pacific tour, arriving in Hawaii on Nov. 3 for a visit that will include a briefing by U.S. Pacific Command. The 12-day tour is the longest by a U.S. president since President George H.W. Bush's in 1992 and will include Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The visit comes against the backdrop of the prevailing perception that the United States is uninterested in the region and as Washington is reassessing its trade agenda, including pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). During the trip, he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vietnam as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and East Asia summit in the Philippines. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will accompany the president before proceeding to Myanmar for meetings on the Rohingya refugee crisis.
In his visits to Japan and South Korea, Trump will emphasize cooperation against North Korea. In Japan, he will meet with Japanese citizens formerly detained by North Korea, and in South Korea he will talk to lawmakers to call for more pressure on North Korea. Having recently achieved an overwhelming victory in snap elections, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take the visit as an opportunity to score political points by showing his close working relationship with the U.S. leader.
Similarly, South Korea announced Nov. 3 that it plans to unveil fresh sanctions against North Korea before or during Trump's visit. These will be the first such measures imposed since December 2016, though they will be largely symbolic, mirroring those imposed by the United States and the European Union to underscore a shared purpose. Trump's visit will include meetings between South Korean and U.S. officials on renegotiating the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which has been a point of contention. Trump will also visit the recently expanded Camp Humphreys military base, which South Korea largely paid for and which Washington has hailed as an example of shared responsibility among allies.
The visit to China comes on the heels of President Xi Jinping's massive success in consolidating power at the 19th Party Congress. North Korea and trade will top Trump's agenda, as he pressures Beijing to accommodate Washington's redline over North Korea's nuclear program and as he flags trade issues to persuade China to reduce its large trade deficit. In the lead-up to Trump's Asia tour, China used its expanded mandate domestically to reach out to South Korea and Vietnam this past week. China has long pressured South Korea over its decision to deploy a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Vietnam has been China's most stubborn opponent in the South China Sea. Beijing said it hopes to find a way forward to ease tension over THAAD and that it had reached an unspecified agreement with Vietnam over maritime disputes. Vietnamese leaders, for their part, will seek assurances that the United States is dedicated to countering China's buildup in the disputed waters. And with the Philippines engaging in a rapprochement with China, Vietnam has taken a more prominent role in the U.S. regional agenda.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is also attending the APEC summit in Vietnam, and there is room for a Trump-Putin meeting on the sidelines. Trump has emphasized how crucial Putin is to helping solve the North Korea crisis — which Moscow relishes, working as it is to use North Korea as leverage to discuss other issues, such as Ukraine. Putin has also prioritized his meeting with Xi as an opportunity for Russia and China to emphasize their role as a counterweight to the United States at APEC.
In the Philippines, Trump will meet for the first time with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who was snubbed by former President Barack Obama over human rights concerns. Under Duterte, the Philippines has pursued a rapprochement with China, but recent U.S. assistance in ousting Islamic State-aligned fighters from the southern city of Marawi has underscored the continued importance of the alliance with Washington.
During the entire trip, all eyes will be on North Korea's own actions. Having refrained from testing a missile since its Sept. 15 overflight test of Japan, Pyongyang is due for another test soon. South Korean intelligence assessments suggest that missile test preparations are underway — and that a test could be timed with Trump's trip.