Viewed from the capitals of the several countries President Donald Trump will visit next week, it has been a deeply unsettling year. What the United States says and does is central to their security, their economic well-being, and the overall stability of the region. Trump came into office off a campaign heavy on rhetoric that sometimes questioned America’s role in the world. Since taking office, the President’s rolling commentary—whether it is about China policy or the North Korean nuclear threat—has often reinforced those concerns and conveyed what the region perceives as a lack of seriousness, even capriciousness.
The Administration’s interlocutors in these countries—Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines—however, are also very practical and want to find ways to make their relationships with the U.S. work. President Trump has already met with all but one of their leaders. This has helped allay some concerns. Indeed, on the power of the personal relationship established between Trump and Prime Shinzo Abe, US-Japan relations in particular are in remarkably good condition. The region has also been reassured by the attention given them by the President’s cabinet. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and others have all made constructive—in some cases, more than one—visits to the region to engage their counterparts and make explicit the terms of U.S. commitments to the Asia-Pacific.
Fundamentally, these commitments to Asia are very much what they have been for decades: Alliances, forward deployment of the U.S. military, active diplomatic engagement—both bilateral and multilateral, and America’s unique long-held One-China policy. President Trump’s trip is an opportunity for him to make clear his personal support for these pillars of the U.S. presence and explain what they mean in terms of policy.
Japan and South Korea. President Trump arrives in Tokyo shortly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has won a strong victory in legislative elections. Abe’s political gamble of calling for an early election paid off with a renewal of his leadership mandate. As a result, he will continue his signature push for revising the country’s constitution to allow Japan to assume greater security responsibilities in the context of the US-Japan alliance. Abe’s efforts to increase Japan’s defense budget and expand the Self-Defense Forces’ overseas responsibilities are likely to please Trump. It is important for him to understand, however, the domestic resistance that Abe will continue to face.
Another area the two sides appear to be making measured progress is on economics. Abe was able to deal with Trump’s long-standing criticism of Japan’s trade practices by proposing a bold bilateral economic initiative emphasizing benefits for American jobs and exports. The resultant US-Japan Economic Dialogue—co-chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso—emphasizes cooperation in three areas: trade and investment rules and issues; cooperation in economic and structural policies; and sectoral cooperation. This could have wide ranging implications for US-Japan relations as well as the strategic value of the alliance in the region beyond. It has already met twice to explore these possibilities
Despite this, trade will remain just below the surface as a potential source of friction. The Trump administration appears to have only one measure for the health of economic relationships—the trade balance. And the large U.S. trade deficit with Japan is likely to persist whatever progress is made in our dialogue. Meanwhile, Washington’s interest in a bi-lateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Japan has found little support in Tokyo. Japan remains wedded to the pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), even if it means concluding an agreement without the U.S. in the hope that Washington will join later. While a bi-lateral FTA is an excellent idea, it will continue to be a tough sell. There were trade-offs in the TPP that Japan was only comfortable making in the context of a broader multilateral agreement, and it correctly suspects the U.S. will press for even greater access under a bi-lateral arrangement.
The area where there is little disagreement between Trump and Abe is on the need for increasing pressure on North Korea to abide by UN Security Council resolutions and end its nuclear weapons program. Japan is alarmed by Pyongyang’s growing military capabilities and repeated threats to use nuclear weapons if Tokyo were to assist the United States during a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. As in the past, Japan was unnerved by recent North Korean missile overflights which again spurred decisions to augment its missile defenses.
In Seoul, Trump and Moon Jae-in share a similar confluence of interests, but it is a personal relationship more fraught with risk. Moon’s visit to Washington in June was a success. The two leaders appear to be managing well some very difficult issues, including the Trump administration’s interest in renegotiating the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and the common threat they face from North Korea. The South Korean President, however, is from a liberal background, including previously serving as chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh’s term—which overlapped with that of American President George W Bush—was marked by very strained relations with Washington.
Moon, like Roh, initially sought to prioritize dialogue over pressure with North Korea. His tougher, more centrist approach to Pyongyang emerged only after the North Korean regime rebuffed his initial attempts at engagement and continued conducting nuclear and missile tests. So while Trump and Moon now share a common approach toward North Korea, the two leaders remain wary of each other. From the U.S. side, questions remain over how permanent Moon’s conversion is and whether he will revert to a softer stance if Pyongyang initiated a charm offensive designed to split the alliance. For their part, many in South Korea were angered by reports of Trump’s negative comments about Moon during a phone call with Abe, as well as Trump’s harsh criticism of KORUS. South Korean officials were also rattled by Trump’s suggestions of greater conditionality in U.S. commitment to the alliance as well as ongoing signals that the U.S. might initiate hostilities with North Korea.
North Korea will be an overriding issue in all of President Trump’s stops—especially in Tokyo and Seoul. Both allies have pledged to increase their already strong measures against Pyongyang and have been taking a lead role in encouraging international partners to step up the pressure. To encourage South Korea and Japan in these efforts, President Trump should reassure them that he remains committed to working lock-step in addressing the North Korean threat, and that U.S. resolve to defend them remains steadfast.
Trump should also use the opportunity of his public appearances, particularly during his National Assembly speech in Seoul, to provide greater clarity on its North Korea policy. Whether the U.S. is contemplating a preventative attack on the regime, that could result in millions of civilian South Korean deaths, will be a frequent query during his trip. He can assuage these concerns by addressing them proactively upfront, and by making it clear that while the U.S. will respond “pre-emptively” if necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear weapon on its territory or that of its allies, it will not initiate a conflict.
China. Similar to Prime Minister Abe, albeit as a result of a non-democratic process, Xi Jinping has also just emerged from a political process that strengthens his governing mandate. The 19th Party Congress unveiled a new Chinese leadership, in the form of a revamped Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. The line-up reveals a clear consolidation of Xi’s power while his address to the Party Congress indicates continued adherence to a hard line. He appears intent on pursuing military modernization and shows only limited interest, at best, in economic liberalization. Political liberalization and the moderating influence that would have on China’s foreign and security policies have essentially been ruled out.
While discouraging, this moment of clarity is a perfect opportunity for Trump to get essential messages to the new Chinese leadership:
First, on North Korea. China has increasingly demonstrated that it either cannot or will not press North Korea unless it is itself under pressure. While Beijing has issued unprecedented restrictions on North Korean joint ventures and ordered Chinese banks to suspend interactions with North Korea, these moves were only undertaken when the United States finally brought pressure to bear on Chinese banks and businessmen. That China only undertook such steps in 2017 highlights the lack of sanctions placed on them in the past. President Trump needs to make clear to Beijing that these sanctions will stay in place and will be enhanced as long as the PRC is out of compliance with UN Security Council resolutions. In fact, it can expect to face even greater pressure beyond issues directly related to North Korea’s nuclear program as long as it remains the North Korean regime’s economic lifeline.
Second, on the South China Sea. The United States has conducted four Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in and around the Spratly and Paracel Islands since May of this year—the same number as the Obama Administration undertook during his entire second term. President Trump needs to emphasize to the Chinese that such demonstrations of American rights in international waters will continue, as will other lawful surveillance and survey activities necessary for the secure operation of American forces. He should also remind Beijing that the findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which ruled in favor of Philippine claims over the Spratlys, are now part of the body of international law, and will be treated as such by the United States however Beijing or Manila may regard that decision.
Third, on Taiwan. Just before the opening of the Party Congress, the Chinese threatened the United States with “severe consequences” if the Congress passed measures to strengthen U.S. ties to the island. This is consistent with the harder line Beijing has pursued since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) scored an overwhelming victory in 2016 elections. It is Beijing that has escalated cross-Straits tensions, suspending all official dialogues with Beijing, and renewing “dollar diplomacy” to woo away the remaining states that recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan). There is no reason for President Trump to raise the matter of Taiwan during his visit. But if it comes up, he should make clear that the United States will stand by its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, even as it maintains its One-China policy. This includes a requirement that any resolution to the conflict between China and Taiwan have the consent of the people of Taiwan and the continued provision to Taiwan of weapons of a defensive character.
Fourth, on economics. Underlying the US-China relationship is an array of economic ties that link the world’s number one and number two economies and contribute to the prosperity of both peoples. China, however, has too often acted in ways that fundamentally undermine the rules that ensure global economic order and provide it unfair advantages in an open market place. In Washington today, even the most ardent supporters of US-China economic engagement are struggling to find ways to reconcile this state of affairs with ongoing support for free trade with China. The most notable products of this debate are proposals to strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and the initiation of a Section 301 investigation into Chinese theft of intellectual property. It is important for Trump to make it clear on this visit that whatever the outcome of these efforts (resort to section 301 for the first time since the establishment of the World Trade Organization is particularly controversial), Beijing’s economic misconduct is having a major impact on debates in Washington and will ultimately have an impact on policy.
The framework for a “free and open IndoPacific” that is emerging as the fundamental operating principle for the Administration’s approach to the region is an important element of its approach to China. Neither it, nor revival of the official quadrilateral dialogue among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India should be open to negotiation.
Vietnam and the Philippines. Trump’s visit to Vietnam and the Philippines is a very important element of the visit. Visiting the capitals of our Northeast Asian allies is an easy call. The U.S. is in blood alliance with South Korea against a threat to its North that could strike at any time, while Japan hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops, as well as its seventh fleet. Southeast Asia requires a little more strategic thinking.
The US-Vietnam security relationship has been growing slowly and steadily for more than 20 years—in recent years, facilitated by overlapping concerns about the shape of China’s rise. The US and Philippines are formal treaty partners and extremely close across a range of measures—defense, economy and people-to-people ties. But what has most commended them for inclusion on the President’s itinerary this year is their hosting of international conferences. Vietnam is this year’s host of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Philippines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Leaders Summit and its associated activities.
That President Trump would understand the strategic significance of engaging these two forums is very encouraging. Leader level involvement in APEC demonstrates a commitment to its value as an economic venue and the stakes that the U.S. has in the region as a whole. But it also indicates support for APEC’s mission to keep East Asia outward looking. (APEC’s membership includes countries from both sides of the Pacific.) Attendance at the ASEAN events demonstrates the Administration’s support for the central role that ASEAN plays in the region’s diplomatic architecture. It also shows that the U.S. values its relationship with a body that is an essential part of its members’ own foreign policies.
While President Trump will attend the official opening of all the ASEAN related events, co-chair the US-ASEAN summit, and have many bi-lateral meetings with leaders on the sidelines of the events, his schedule prevents him from attending one critical venue, the East Asian Summit (EAS). (The EAS brings together the leaders of the ten ASEAN countries, plus those of the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and Russia.) This is a mistake. But there are things Trump can do to mitigate the damage. He needs to make clear that his decision not to attend has nothing to do with his perceptions of its value. And more importantly, he needs to make clear that he has every intention of attending next year in Singapore.
There are bilateral priorities to discuss in both Hanoi and Manila. In Hanoi, he will likely meet for the second time with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, but also its president and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party. This is an opportunity to deepen connections and to discuss broader areas of strategic interest. Vietnam, for instance, should be a candidate for a bilateral FTA with the U.S. Another area of interest that should be discussed is our expanding military ties and Vietnam’s interest in the purchase of American made weaponry. In his meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Dutere, there are similar strategic issues to discuss—concerns over Chinese activities in the South China Sea, the struggle against terrorism, and the disposition of U.S. forces in the Philippines. Trump should also raise with Duterte concerns that many in the U.S., most notably in Congress, have with the Philippines prosecution of its war against drugs.
Conclusion. President Trump’s visit to Asia is great opportunity. Especially in Asia, nothing is more important than the boss showing up to make clear that he fully and personally endorses the work those in his administration are engaged in. If he does it right, he will leave behind a region reassured about America’s commitment to its security and its staying power over the long-term. This—followed up with a deliberate consistency—will go a long way to ensuring a regional stability that is the best interest of the U.S.