U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is preparing for his inaugural trip to the Asia-Pacific since taking office. Pence will kick off his 10-day tour of the region on April 15, stopping to meet with heads of state and lawmakers in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Scheduled "listening sessions" with business leaders in each country suggest that the vice president will address concerns over Washington's trade and economic policies toward the region. But the trip's main purpose, according to the White House, is to reassure the United States' regional partners and to reaffirm its commitments to their security in a time of increasing uncertainty in East Asia.
Tensions are high in the region. North Korea is expected to conduct another nuclear weapons test imminently, perhaps as soon as April 15, the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country's government. Leading up to Pyongyang's anticipated strike, the United States and China have each taken steps to deter North Korea's leaders from following through with it. Beijing halted coal shipments from North Korea during the week of April 3 and threatened to cut off oil supplies in the event of a nuclear test. Washington, meanwhile, has warned of military action against North Korea and accelerated the deployment of missile defense support on South Korea. In addition, the Pentagon dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the region — a move meant to pressure China as much as North Korea.
Given the circumstances, the Korean Peninsula's security is likely to dominate the conversation during Pence's stops in South Korea and to a lesser extent Japan. Leaders from both countries will use the visit to gauge the credibility of Washington's threats to use military force against Pyongyang should diplomatic efforts fail. Even so, North Korea's nuclear development will not be the only topic under discussion. China's steadily growing military clout and assertiveness will also prompt the countries to seek assurances of continued U.S. support and commitment to regional security. And Tokyo, in particular, will try to steer its conversations with the vice president toward security matters and away from the U.S. administration's concerns over bilateral trade relations, the Japanese yen and economic policy.
Five days into his tour, Pence will depart Northeast Asia for Indonesia, where he is scheduled to meet with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. Though Indonesia is not a U.S. ally, Washington has long considered it an important strategic partner thanks to its role as a link between East and South Asia and as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' de facto leader. Pence will likely use his time in the country to emphasize its potential as a stabilizing maritime force in Southeast Asia, while also promoting increased economic and defense ties between the United States and Indonesia.
The vice president will then head to Australia on April 22 to meet with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, members of the country's Foreign Service and representatives from the political opposition. And here, too, Pence will take the opportunity to reiterate Washington's commitment to maintaining a strong security and economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region despite the current administration's decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.