US President Donald Trump is making final preparations for his landmark 12-day trip to Asia with stop-offs in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. While North Korea will dominate the first part of the visit which starts on November 6, Trump is also being billed to outline his wider Asia policy for the first time with an alternative vision to Barack Obama’s regional ‘pivot’.
Previously, the Obama administration pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal to underline its regional commitment, partly to push back on China’s growing power and presence which is a concern for some Asia allies. But the Trump team pulled out of that accord with no replacement initiatives so far.
A key goal of the trip for Trump is therefore to dispel perceptions that he has little interest in this strategically important area of the globe. To do so, he will seek to articulate what his political, security, and economic ambitions for the region are in a speech anticipated in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.
Beyond allies like South Korea and Japan, the danger is that the president and his team may appear on the tour so overwhelmingly focused on North Korea — crucial as that issue is to resolve — that he shows little affinity for the broader range of issues in the regional dialogue from South China Sea tensions, to regional counter-terrorism, and trade. And this could fuel concerns in some countries that agendas are not aligned, and that the administration cares little for them, especially after Trump cut short his visit by cancelling attendance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in the Philippines.
Trump therefore faces a diplomatic balancing act, especially in the first part of his trip where the over-riding goal is getting Japan, South Korea — and especially China — on board the US approach toward tightening the screws on North Korea. The reason why this is a US super-priority was highlighted by CIA Director Mike Pompeo last week when he asserted Pyongyang is perhaps only months away from possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland, an avowed red line for the president.
While Japanese President Shinzo Abe is closely aligned to Trump having just received a renewed electoral mandate on the back of tough talk against Pyongyang, Seoul and Beijing are tougher audiences. South Korean President Moon Jae-in strongly opposes use of military force on the peninsula, while Trump has declared “more dialogue a dead end” and that Moon’s approach is tantamount to “appeasement”.
The challenge is greater, however, in China and it is reported that the White House is now conducting a root and branch review of policy toward Beijing. To be sure, US-China disagreements over North Korea have softened with Beijing — which accounts for some 90 per cent of its neighbour’s foreign trade — tightening sanctions.
Yet, China still has key differences with the US. A key reason for this is President Xi Jinping does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised. From his vantage point, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and/or the outside possibility of the regime’s collapse.
Beijing fears if the Communist regime in the hermit kingdom falls it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party too. In addition, it worries that the collapse of order in Pyongyang could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor state.
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Yet, in the face of repeated provocations from Pyongyang, Washington senses there may be a window to bring itself and Beijing even closer together. Trump will therefore probe if China may jettison more of its longstanding reservations about squeezing its neighbour.
He will make clear in Beijing the stakes in play are growing fast. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and some 15 missile launches this year have offered significant evidence that it is moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US mainland, let alone key allies like Japan or South Korea in much closer proximity.
With the US and its territories, including Guam, looking increasingly vulnerable, what Beijing fears, especially with more potential provocations from Pyongyang on the horizon, is that Trump is thinking much more seriously about a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The US president has asserted for instance that the regime “is behaving in a very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it...and probably dealt with rapidly”.
Of course, Trump has threatened force with his “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” rhetoric. Yet, scenarios range from actions like a naval blockade to enforce sanctions — including interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income, through to a potential new round of peace talks at the dovish end of the spectrum.
Taken overall, Trump faces a tricky task in balancing his desire to focus on Korea while showing interest in the wider regional dialogue. Perhaps his key test will come in Beijing where he will seek to align more closely positions over Pyongyang given the possibility that he could soon face his first major foreign policy crisis.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.