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U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper inspects an honor guard ahead of a meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, Japan August 7, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS

Washington: President Donald Trump has sought to address two intractable challenges in East Asia - North Korea’s nuclear weapons and China’s predatory trade policies - but 2 1/2 years into his presidency, he is facing deepening turbulence in the region.

North Korea has resumed short-range missile tests, conducting four launches over the past two weeks, while the Trump administration’s trade war with China escalated this week from a tariff fight to a broader dispute over currency, spooking financial markets.

At the same time, two major U.S. allies - Japan and South Korea, who Trump has tried to unify to confront Beijing and Pyongyang - have been riven over a bitter trade dispute of their own, rooted in historical grievances, a row that Trump has been unable, and more recently unwilling, to help mediate.

And mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have sparked fears that Beijing will choose to intervene through force to stamp out the protests, presenting a test on free speech and human rights for a president who has given little voice to such issues.

“These are big problems,” said Michael Green, who served as a top Asia policy adviser in the White House under President George W. Bush. He said that it was unfair to blame them on the Trump administration but that the president’s lack of a clear strategy on trade and human rights has contributed to making the situations worse.

“These were all problems for the last three administrations. Nobody solved the problems, and Trump won’t solve them either,” Green said.

“But they’re getting worse, and they’re all converging now.”

Crisis managment

White House aides said the president and his team have been engaged in managing the potential flash points and reassuring U.S. allies of the administration’s resolve.

New Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are visiting Asia this week, while John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, visited in late July.

Esper, who arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday, told reporters that, despite North Korea’s missile tests, tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have “been palpably lessened” since Trump engaged in personal diplomacy with dictator Kim Jong Un.

He vowed to coordinate closely with counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul, and urged those two camps to resolve their bilateral dispute and “focus on North Korea and China.”

But Trump’s own interest in resolving the spat between the allies has been in question of late.

After holding three trilateral meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his first two years in office, Trump complained to reporters last month that dealing with their disputes is “like a full-time job.”

Japan, South Korea spat

The tensions intensified when Japan moved last month to curb sales to South Korea of chemical materials used to produce memory chips and semiconductors.

That step was viewed in Seoul as retaliation for a South Korean court decision allowing citizens to sue Japanese companies for mistreatment of South Korean workers during the imperial occupation in World War II.

Trump said last month that Moon had asked him to mediate with Abe.

“I said, ‘How many things do I have to get involved in?’ “ Trump said, recalling his conversation with Moon. “I’m involved with North Korea. I’m involved in so many things.”

Last week, Japan removed South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners.

Thousands marched in Seoul over the weekend, calling for a boycott of Japan, and the Moon government is reportedly considering canceling an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo.

Behind the scenes, Trump administration officials blame Moon for reneging on an agreement reached in 2015 with assistance from the Obama administration to resolve the historical issues. They said Trump pressed Moon and Abe during the trilateral meetings to resolve their tensions.

The growing hostility between the U.S. allies comes as Pyongyang has renewed its provocations.

North Korea missile launches

On Tuesday, North Korea launched its fourth set of projectiles in less than two weeks. Nuclear talks with the United States have remained dormant despite Trump’s dramatic meeting with Kim at the Korean demilitarized zone in June.

Despite the provocations, Trump professed in a series of tweets last week that he is confident Kim “does not want to disappoint me with a violation of trust.”

The president said the short-range tests, while potentially a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, were not covered in a verbal agreement he struck with Kim last year to maintain a moratorium on tests of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

Danny Russel, who served as a high-level Asia policy official in the Obama administration, acknowledged that many of the challenges predate Trump’s election. But he called Trump’s approach to the region “ineffective and often neglectful” and said there is a “crisis of confidence among America’s Asian friends and allies who are increasingly vocal about their diminishing faith in America’s reliability and resolve.”

US-China trade war

Trump has bruised U.S. allies and partners in his trade war with China by hitting them with tariffs as well. His administration also has pressured other countries to choose sides on issues ranging from Chinese infrastructure investment to sanctions on Chinese telecom giant Huawei, an unwelcome prospect for those who rely on open trade with both of the world’s top economic powers.

“Countries in the region want to see an engaged United States . . . but they do not want to get caught in an all-out fight between the U.S. and China,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security who has advised Republican presidential candidates. “To the degree that our approach and the Chinese approach look like an all-out fight, it’s harder to enlist countries on our side.”

In pursuing a trade deal, Trump has signaled that he is willing to sacrifice leadership on democracy and human rights issues. Last week, for example, Trump seemed to echo Beijing’s hard-line rhetoric about the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong, referring to the demonstrations against tightening controls over the island by Beijing as “riots.”

Trump also praised Xi for acting “very responsibly” despite reports that Hong Kong authorities have failed to protect protesters from physical attacks by pro-government groups.

But Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump appeared more interested in preserving his relationship with Xi than in voicing support for the protesters, a prospect she called “really problematic” in the tense situation in Hong Kong.

Of the trade war, Glaser added: “Neither side is really interested in negotiating in earnest on a deal at this point. It will be in this place until the election. If anything, things will get worse.”