US President Donald Trump has started his first five-nation tour of Asia on Sunday. The White House said Trump’s travel “will underscore his commitment to long-standing US alliances and partnerships, and reaffirm US leadership in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
The Trump government is good at creating a buzz, as he did during his visits to the Middle East and Europe. Senior US officials made remarks in this regard from time to time, and Asian countries attach great importance to the trip that comes at a time of major cross-currents in the Asia-Pacific. It is unclear though if Trump will repeat the mistakes of his embarrassing trip to Europe or will pull off a great diplomatic feat.
On the one hand, Asian countries want to take this opportunity to seek clarity on Trump’s Asia policy and how the new US government defines the continent’s role in Washington’s global strategy after walking away from the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. On the other hand, they want to express their concerns directly to Trump and explore a new path of friendly cooperation. Trump’s response to these two issues will affect the outcome of his trip.
Among the five countries he is visiting, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are US’ allies of crucial importance in the Asia Pacific. As ties with Vietnam have gained momentum in recent years, Washington also sees Hanoi as a significant regional partner.
Trump scoffed at his Asia-Pacific allies during campaigning and sent many negative signals, making them sceptical of his Asia-Pacific policy and US ties. US reputation in the region is hence undermined. The Trump administration hopes to use this chance to placate allies, enhance mutual trust and strengthen the alliance system which serves as the cornerstone of US’ Asia-Pacific policy.
With the end of the rebalance to Asia Pacific, Trump is adjusting its regional focus. The US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; US-Philippine relations turned cold; the Trump administration kept a low profile on the South China Sea issue; and the North Korea nuclear issue rose in significance. All this shows that the US focus in Asia is shifting from the southeast to the northeast. How to respond to this concern will be another important issue for Trump to deal with in his Asia trip.
Trump’s two-day visit to China underscores the significance of Sino-US relations. He hopes to continue exerting pressure on China over the North Korean nuclear issue and extract concessions on economic and trade issues to relieve the manifold pressures he faces. To establish effective communication with China is also an important item on Trump’s agenda. A successful visit to the country will not only help Trump score diplomatic victories, but also win respect from allies and partners. However, asking for concessions without giving something in return may dash his hopes.
The focus of Trump’s maiden Asia trip will include responding to allies’ security concerns over North Korea and establishing fair and mutually beneficial economic ties with Asian trading partners.
Escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula has made itself at the top of the list of Washington’s concerns. It is not hard to predict that Trump will create pressure on China by deepening military alliance with Japan and South Korea, and step up strategic diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea. History has proved that it’s way to a dead end. Yet a cautious policy toward North Korea apparently does not fit in with Trump’s preference. Therefore, we should be well prepared for the unexpected to happen on the peninsula when Trump is in Asia.
Trump has always believed that the US is a victim of the current international trade system that must be corrected. The trade imbalance with Asian countries will be a topic frequently raked up by Trump. But given the growing protectionist tendency of the US, Asian countries are unlikely to heed Trump’s ideas. It is more likely that Trump’s resistance to multilateral trade and globalization would receive no response. One would not be surprised if Asia-Pacific countries come together to face off the US on economic and trade issues.
The challenges facing Trump’s maiden Asia trip are formidable. Under the “America First” slogan, whether Asia continues to be “first” on the US’ global map will be a yardstick for Asian countries to deal with the US. In response to the concerns of Asian countries, Trump should understand that Asia is no longer a place the US can interfere in. Asia welcomes a sincere and cooperative stance, and intimidation or threats will lead nowhere.
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