IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Trump’s Asia Trip: Expectations versus Reality

Written by Elizabeth Freund Larus.

US President Donald J. Trump embarked on November 3rd on a trip through Asia with planned stops in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. What can we expect from this trip? Above all, Trump will endeavour to reassure regional allies and friends that the United States is committed to the long-term security and prosperity of the region. Second, he will pursue economic opportunities beneficial to US businesses, and possibly bring home some economic goodies for American businesses and workers. Although Trump continues to tout domestic and foreign policies that put “America first,” he will use the trip to seek mutual benefit for the United States and its regional allies.

Trump’s trip comes shortly after two seminal events in the Asia-Pacific that will shape the progress of his visit: Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s victory in recent national elections, and Xi Jinping’s elevation as China’s omnipotent leader at the just-concluded 19th Communist Party Congress. Trump will be meeting leaders whose hands have been strengthened by their October 2017 (s)elections. Because of their respective (s)elections, Abe will be willing and able to seek greater US military commitment to the region, and Xi will be empowered to challenge US dominance of the Asia-Pacific.

The success of Trump’s Asian tour may be marred by political problems at home. Low job approval ratings and an investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election may lead foreign leaders, particularly China, to see Trump as a ‘wounded hegemon.’

Trump’s Asia-Pacific tour begins in Japan on November 5, where he will talk North Korea and trade with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since the Japanese elections, which were widely seen as a referendum on his foreign policy, Abe has promised “strong measures” against North Korea. Abe will likely discuss with Trump pursuing enhanced diplomacy to tackle North Korean nuclear threat as well as the purchase of US missile interceptors. They are also expected to discuss a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA), which would open services trade and protect intellectual property and, unlike the now-defunct Trans Pacific Partnership, strengthen US energy exports to Japan. Trump’s interest in the FTA is hard to gauge. Upon taking office, President Trump scuttled TPP for its failure to protect US workers from the consequences of globalisation. Trump might be more open to the US-Japan FTA than the TPP because the FTA would strengthen the alliance at a time when Washington and Tokyo are looking for ways to offset China’s economic power.

After two days in Japan, Trump will move on to South Korea. He will engage in bilateral meetings with President Moon Jae-in and address South Korea’s National Assembly, calling for more sanctions on North Korea. Trump visits Seoul a week after US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who claimed that the United States would never accept a nuclear North Korea. Expect Trump to discuss the possibility of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea, and to hint at military strikes on North Korea, which Seoul opposes.

Trump is then on to China for three days, the longest stop on his trip. In Beijing, expect Trump to discuss North Korea and trade with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders. Trump is likely to walk away with little progress on North Korea. He then will raise the alarm over unfair trade practices and intellectual property (IP) theft. Trump campaigned on claims that China’s trade practices hurt US businesses, and promised to make foreign trade fair again if elected president.

China enjoys a $239 billion trade surplus with the United States, a 6.2 percent increase over 2016, offering Trump ammunition to seek a better deal from China. To placate Trump, Xi will likely offer the United States some newsworthy (perhaps Tweet-able) deals, which are customary during US state visits to China. Look for Beijing to hold out the promise of titillating contracts with Boeing, a perennial mainstay of US-China negotiations. Also look for Trump to take up the fentanyl issue in meetings with Xi. China is the primary source of fentanyl in the United States; the opioid’s association with China is clear in its street names: China White, China Girl and China Town. More than 20,000 Americans died in 2016 after taking the drug. In October, US authorities charged two Chinese nationals with fentanyl trafficking by taking orders over the internet and shipping thousands of doses directly to US consumers.

While Trump will not be making a stop in Taiwan, expect it to come up in Trump’s meetings with Xi. Xi is in a stronger position after the 19th Party Congress than he was when he met Trump at Mar-A-Lago seven months ago. A more muscular Xi will probably press Trump to reiterate the US’ commitment to Beijing’s one China principle. Xi will likely press Trump to stop, or at least delay, arms sales to Taiwan. He will possibly chastise Trump for allowing Tsai to stop over in the continental United States on her January 2017 Central American tour and in Hawaii last week [1]. In advance of both trips, China had demanded that Washington not allow Tsai to enter the United States under the US one China policy. Meanwhile, Taipei will look for any indication of whether Trump will sell out Taiwan for agreements with China on North Korea or trade.

Trump will depart China November 10 for Vietnam, where he will participate in the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. He will deliver a speech at its summit, offering his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. In meetings with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, expect Trump to emphasise Vietnam’s importance in advancing US economic prosperity while also emphasising US’ commitment to lawful resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Tran and other Vietnamese leaders may admonish Trump for withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership, of which Vietnam was to be the biggest beneficiary.

Trump will celebrate the 40th anniversary of US-ASEAN relations and participate in meetings with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and other leaders on November 12 and 13. His visit with Duterte is controversial given Duterte’s record of human rights abuses. Trump reportedly praised Duterte for his sanctioning of extra-judicial executions in response to the Philippines’s drug problem. Trump is cutting his visit to the Philippines short by a day, skipping the East Asia Summit, an annual conference of Asian and world leaders that focuses on the strategic future of the region. Trump’s early departure does little to assure regional allies and friends of US commitment to the region.

The success of Trump’s Asian tour may be marred by political problems at home. Low job approval ratings and an investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election may lead foreign leaders, particularly China, to see Trump as a ‘wounded hegemon.’ [2] As a result, they may not take him seriously and may further question US commitment to the region. The other possibility is that President Trump comes home earlier than planned to push for tax reform, much like former US President Barack Obama delayed a 2010 visit to Indonesia to lobby for health care reform. There is also the possibility of a truncated trip if his advisors determine that Trump is not having a good trip. Trump publicly expressed dread about going abroad for his first trip. The tax reform debate in Congress might offer the pretext with which to shorten the trip.

Expectations for Trump’s Asia trip should not be too high. Many of the topics under discussion have been raised in previous meetings. The most interesting potential development to watch is a slightly soured relationship between Presidents Trump and Xi. Expect some slight snub that may be veiled to US audiences but crystal clear to the Chinese in response to US actions toward Taiwan. Leaders of the other countries will want public assurances of US commitment to the region, with Japan and South Korea seeking closer military and economic ties. Vietnam will chastise Trump for tossing away TPP, but will not be overly harsh as it seeks closer military cooperation with Washington. The Philippines will make clear that it is not a toady of the United States, and that Washington needs to offer Manila some benefits to keep the Philippines in the US camp. And expect some cheeky Tweets.

Elizabeth Freund Larus, Ph.D., is Waple Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington and President of E Larus Consulting. She is author of Politics and Society in Contemporary China. She may be contacted at elarus@umw.edu. Image credit: CC by White House/Flickr.

Endnotes:
[1] Washington allowed previous Taiwan Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian to transit through Hawaii or Alaska, not the continental United States, on their diplomatic tours.
[2] The mainland Chinese media often use the term ‘wounded hegemon’ to refer to the United States as a declining power.