Trump Angles for a Win in Asia

8 MINS READNov 7, 2017 | 18:30 GMT
U.S. President Donald Trump toasts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) at a welcome dinner at Akasaka Palace, Tokyo, Nov. 6.

U.S. President Donald Trump toasts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (l) at a welcome dinner at Akasaka Palace, Tokyo, Nov. 6. The extended trip comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, but there are opportunities to advance Washington's agenda across a number of diplomatic fronts.


  • 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.

U.S. President Donald Trump embarks on a 12-day tour of the Asia-Pacific at a time of geopolitical flux. The trip comes on the heels of a major leadership transition in China and a snap election in Japan. Those changes have strengthened Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe, the leaders of the region's two biggest economies, which are also geopolitical rivals. Meanwhile, Washington is entangled in controversy at home. But the United States faces a far more pressing challenge: a North Korea that is quickly approaching its objective of a credible nuclear deterrent — a red line for the United States. The president can be expected to exhort both allies and rivals to step up their efforts to contain Pyongyang. However, Washington's problems at home, its demands for trade reassessments and the ongoing strategic realignments in the region will complicate its efforts to reaffirm its commitments and to advance its priorities.
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. Like his visit to Japan, Trump's meetings in Seoul will center on dialing up pressure against North Korea and reaffirming the U.S.-South Korean defensive alliance. But unlike the South Korean government, Tokyo is looking for Washington's blessing to play a more prominent role in regional security matters and in counterbalancing China. North Korea and trade will dominate Trump's meeting in China, and President Xi Jinping will welcome him with an unprecedented banquet in the Forbidden City and significant business deals in hopes of hedging against Washington trade pressure. In contrast, his meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines will focus on clarifying Washington's positions on regional trade and maritime security while smoothing over earlier bumps in relations with the Philippines.

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

Trump's tour comes at a crucial moment as countries in the region and beyond gauge Washington's options in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program. The United States has apparently boosted the perception that it is willing to take unilateral military action should diplomacy fail, and a rare assembly of three U.S. carrier strike groups has moved into the Western Pacific for mid-November exercises. Indeed, increased sanctions and international isolation have done nothing but encourage North Korea to fast-track the development of its nuclear arsenal. As Pyongyang refuses to yield, the United States and its allies are attempting to seize a limited opportunity to delay or to halt its nuclear ambitions — whether through military or other means. Against this backdrop, Trump's visits to Tokyo and Seoul serve primarily as a chance to seek consensus among its core regional allies, reaffirm Washington's security commitment and shore up political support for more energetic defense postures.
But unlike Japan, which has fewer constraints in aligning with Washington's agenda, South Korea must carefully weigh its options against the deadly cost of a military provocation of North Korea or the backlash from China over greater security cooperation. Indeed, Seoul's strong opposition to U.S. military action, its soft-line approach to North Korea and pursuit of dialogue with Pyongyang, and its willingness to pursue rapprochement with Beijing over the U.S. missile defense controversy, cast doubt on whether Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae In will speak with a united voice. Taking advantage of Seoul's perceived unreliability, Tokyo will seek a more prominent and active role in the region, which will assist its military normalization and future U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation. In addition, Tokyo will use the opportunity to solidify its role as a counterbalance to China. Japan willalso  propose to re-establish a quadrilateral security mechanism involving Australia and India, reflecting Washington's concept of Indo-Pacific security.

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

As the limited detente between the United States and China over North Korea has worn thin, Washington has refocused its trade agenda. Specifically, the United States has pressured China to take action in three areas: market access restrictions, trade protectionism and intellectual property practices, particularly in the high-tech sector. Washington recently launched an investigation of technology transfers under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 and blocked a Chinese takeover of a U.S. computer chipmaker. While Beijing has made some concessions, such as granting a limited opening to U.S. agriculture, promising to increase energy imports and vowing to protect foreign intellectual property, its actions have fallen far short of U.S. expectations.
Until now, Beijing's strategy has been to offer just enough incentives to deflect U.S. demands for greater market access and for structural reform to China's economy. To this end and ahead of Trump's visit, Beijing has been tailoring its negotiations around the president's domestic goals. For instance, the state-owned petroleum refiner Sinopec is proposing a $7 billion energy investment in hurricane-ravaged areas of Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands that could create thousands of jobs. China may also allow Tesla to build its first wholly owned manufacturing operation in Shanghai to showcase Beijing's commitment to greater market access. 
While these moves are welcome gestures, Washington is unlikely to let the issues of Chinese trade and currency practices end at that. Even allies Japan and South Korea haven't avoided U.S. trade pressure. Speaking to business leaders in Tokyo on Nov. 6, Trump criticized Japan's trade practices, called for more Japanese investment into the United States and demanded that the country open its markets to U.S. beef and auto exports. In South Korea, Trump is expected to clarify the status of a review of the countries' bilateral free-trade pact. The United States will likely seek greater openness for agricultural products, looser conditions on the services sector and openness for investment in emerging industries.

Looking South

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.


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