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Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s Asia trek through Japan, South Korea and China will test the art of his deals

Donald Kirk says the US president faces several difficult tasks as he meets leaders in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, not least of which will be keeping the pressure on North Korea while easing China’s concerns about THAAD

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 8:01am

US President Donald Trump faces a diplomatic challenge that would be daunting enough for any

national leader, let alone one who is noted for blunt, non-diplomatic language.

Beginning Sunday in Tokyo, he’ll be hopscotching among capitals of East Asian countries with long histories of hostility, each wary of the others even when they’re not fighting wars. It’s appropriate, after going on to Seoul, that he will be in Beijing, where he can tell President Xi Jinping all he’s taking away from meetings with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

No doubt the Chinese and American presidents will manage a show of cheer and goodwill, just as they did at their informal meetings earlier this year at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. For Trump, the challenge will be somehow to persuade Xi of the need to get even tougher on North Korea, which depends on China for most of its oil and much of its food.

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Trump may find Xi quite amenable now that the 19th congress of the Communist Party of China is over and new leaders are in place. To all outward appearances more powerful than ever, the Chinese president surely will put on a show of strict adherence to UN sanctions against the North even while demurring on pleas to cut off the oil.

The dialogue may get strained, however, when Trump reports on what he’s heard from Abe in Tokyo. Riding high after the success of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, allied with the much smaller Buddhist-backed Komeito, Abe wants to build up Japan’s euphemistically named “self-defence” forces to counter any North Korean threat. To do so, he has to persuade two-thirds of the Japanese diet, and then half the country’s voters, to say “no” to Article 9 of the so-called “peace constitution”, ghostwritten by Americans during the US “occupation” after the Japanese defeat in August 1945.

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Chinese react instinctively against notions of Japan’s renaissance as a military power. There are too many awful memories of Japanese conquest of much of the country, notably in the northeast. Those memories go deep into history. No one forgets the first Sino-Japanese war that ended with Japan’s victory in 1895 and the Japanese takeover of Taiwan, island home of the Chinese Nationalist forces that fled there before the final Communist victory on the mainland in 1949.

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Sandwiched between Trump’s stops in Tokyo and Beijing, South Korea presents its own issues. Trump will no doubt affirm the “ironclad” nature of the US-South Korean alliance but will not convince Moon of the need for a “military option” if diplomacy with North Korea fails.

Xi, looking for clues to how Trump and Moon got along, will pick up on signs of disagreement. In the quest for “stability” on the Korean peninsula, he will not accept arguments of the need to “pre-emptively” annihilate North Korean nuclear and missile sites.

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In navigating his way through the region, Trump will mingle calls for peace with declarations of power, including the ability to “destroy” North Korea if the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, shows signs of making good on his more bizarre threats.

To Xi, however, such loose rhetoric also threatens Chinese interests elsewhere. He is not going to agree with American claims of the right of US warships to go anywhere they wish in the South China Sea. Nor will he compromise on Japanese claims to those islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkaku and to the Chinese as Diaoyu.

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Listening to Trump’s assurances of goodwill, however, might Xi relent on his strenuous objections to South Korea accepting a US battery known as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence? Might Trump persuade Xi that China has punished South Korea enough for the sin of hosting THAAD, which the Americans and South Koreans insist is to shoot down high-flying North Korean missiles, not to menace China?

If Trump can talk Xi into passive acquiescence on THAAD, then his mission to Beijing will have been a success.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea