- U.S. efforts to contain Pyongyang will be complicated by South Korea's objection to a hardline approach to dealing with the North.
- Taking advantage of Seoul's perceived disquiet, Tokyo seeks a more prominent and active role in the region.
- Beijing hopes to deflect U.S. demands for greater market access and structural reform with business incentives, but Washington will not skirt the issues of Chinese trade and currency practices.
If the purpose of Trump's visit is to cement Washington's agenda, then each leg of his tour will focus on a different aspect of this goal.
Toward the end of the trip, Trump will join 20 other leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, as well as the East Asia Summit. Trump will also attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, where the Philippines chairs the bloc's 50th-anniversary celebration.
The North Korean Standoff
The key questions for Trump's meeting with Xi are what does Washington expect from China on North Korea, and what can Beijing reasonably do?
While Washington's military pressure is aimed at deterring Pyongyang, it's also an effort to compel China to step up efforts to rein in its neighbor. In fact, while Beijing was strongly concerned about the effects of tougher economic sanctions on regime instability and refugee flow, it has shown stronger resolve lately in complying with the restrictions. Questions remain about enforcement, but Beijing appeared to reluctantly accept that sanctions are the only viable means to dissuade North Korea. But, more critically, they pre-empt secondary sanctions on Chinese businesses and head off a much more costly preventive strike against Pyongyang. Against this backdrop, the key questions for Trump's meeting with Xi are: What does Washington expect from China on North Korea, and what can Beijing, given its constraints, reasonably do?
The China-U.S. Trade Tussle
In Danang, an emerging economic powerhouse in central Vietnam, Trump's trade discussions with three Northeast Asian states will pave his way to the APEC forum. But at APEC, where the remaining 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership struggle to keep the multilateral deal alive in the wake of the U.S. pullout, world attention will turn to Trump's meeting with other leaders, and possibly Putin. Separately, during the ASEAN and East Asia Summit in the Philippines, Trump will focus on smoothing over uncertainties about the administration's commitment to the economic and security architecture in the Western Pacific, on having a unified ASEAN voice, and on maintaining robust maritime security.
As the disputes over the South China Sea increasingly turn in China's favor and as many Southeast Asian nations — most conspicuously the Philippines — tilt toward Beijing, Vietnam will play a more prominent role in Washington's Western Pacific strategy. After Danang, Trump will talk with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi about increasing economic and security cooperation and checking Beijing's maritime expansionism in the South China Sea. While the two countries have ample room for further security cooperation, Hanoi remains reluctant to entangle itself in the competition between China and the United States or develop bilateral ties beyond the economic realm. Separately, Trump's visit to the Philippines will give the two allies a chance to reset their bilateral relations. Manila's shift to China and Russia has given it space to trim its reliance on the United States and to hedge against the West over its contentious priorities. Nonetheless, the Philippines have powerful incentives to keep the security alliance with the United States intact, as the recent battle in Marawi City illustrated. That alliance also provides negotiating strength in dealing with Beijing.
Overall, Trump's visit reinforces his Asia-Pacific agenda, reaffirms the fundamental continuity of U.S. power in the region and delivers the message that while Washington policy may be subject to modification, its strategic interests — as well as challenges — in the region will not diminish.