President Trump is jetting off on an East Asian jaunt today — and when he arrives he’ll come face to face with one of the world’s most dynamic and challenging regions for the United States to come to grips with.
This makes Trump’s first trip to the region — his longest overseas trip to date at nearly two weeks in length — one of great gravity for U.S. national interests.
With that in mind, let’s set the scene.
Stop No. 1: Japan. No surprise that Trump is going here first. Tokyo is an ally and an important regional and global partner for Washington — and there will be plenty to discuss with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, fresh off his parliamentary election win.
North Korea will certainly top the list of issues, considering Pyongyang’s atomic advances, North Korean ballistic missile overflights of Japan — and the fact that the Japanese are in the North Koreans’ crosshairs, too.
If anything, trade issues and defense burden-sharing of the cost of U.S. troops stationed in Japan could be a source of friction between Trump and Abe — but is unlikely to overshadow the visit between the two, who are considered to be friendly.
Stop No. 2: South Korea. Naturally, North Korea will again be at the top of the agenda when Trump lands in Seoul. While it’s been reported that the president won’t go to the DMZ, Seoul itself sits just 25 miles away.
The challenge and opportunity in South Korea will be for Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to come out of meetings singing off the same song sheet on North Korea; Moon has put off, but long advocated, a softer line toward Pyongyang.
Our Korean allies will roll out the red carpet for the Americans — figuratively and literally — since Trump’s visit will be a “state visit.” The pomp and circumstance probably won’t diminish Trump’s concern about the U.S. trade agreement with Seoul, though.
Stop No. 3: China. Though also a state visit, Beijing will be the most contentious stop. Once again, North Korea will dominate, since China plays a pivotal role in influencing its neighbor. Indeed, we’ve seen more cooperation from China on this matter than ever before, but it’s not enough.
And with Chinese President Xi Jinping just having been “re-elected” to another five-year term at the Communist Party’s Congress, Beijing may be more resistant to Washington’s pressure on this and other issues.
For instance, Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, Beijing’s military build-up, the theft or forced transfer of American intellectual property (such as U.S. designs and processes) and other trade issues will be problem areas.
Stops No. 4 and No. 5: Vietnam and the Philippines. Trump will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit in Vietnam along with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, meetings in Manila, another U.S. ally.
These are important regional forums and will demonstrate American interest in Southeast Asia. Building the relationship with China-skeptical Hanoi and discussing terrorism and the South China Sea with Manila will be central objectives.
Of course, the trip could get exceedingly “exciting” if North Korea acts up. But, in any case, this first trip is critically important for laying the foundation for advancing and protecting U.S. interests in all-important Asia.
This piece originally appeared in the Boston Herald on 11/3/17