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Donald Trump

Will Donald Trump stay on script or prompt ‘white knuckles’ on his Asian trip?

‘In the past 10 months, we’ve been socialised to expect trauma from President Trump,’ says Council on Foreign Relations’ US-Korea policy expert

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 November, 2017, 7:59am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 11:21am

US President Donald Trump may prompt “white knuckles” and “held breath” among government officials in Japan and South Korea when he visits those countries, US analysts said.

“In the course of the past 10 months, we’ve been socialised to expect trauma from President Trump, and when it comes to Korea, among government officials there will be a lot of white knuckles and held breath,” Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the programme on US-Korea policy at Council on Foreign Relations, said on a media call about Trump’s upcoming Asia trip.

“They will want him to stay on script.”

Trump raised hackles in South Korea in recent months with his insulting tweets aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and suggestions that the US might act preemptively to avert any military attacks by Pyongyang.

His hosts, analysts say, will be on alert for any similarly confrontational or callous behaviour regarding North Korea or other diplomatically sensitive issues because the media in Japan and South Korea is likely to ask questions about hot button issues.

In South Korea, “fears of abandonment and entanglement I think have really been exacerbated in recent years,” Bruce Klingner, the Heritage Foundation’s Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia and former CIA officer, said.

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“On abandonment as North Korea’s capabilities increase so that they can now hit the continental US with nuclear weapons, there is that phrase of will the US really trade LA for Seoul? That we will abandon them to save our own skin,” Klingner said, speaking at a media round table in Washington. “The other one is entanglement … that we will entangle them in a war with North Korea through a pre-emptive strike or preventative strike.”

There is risk of discordance in Trump’s dealings in Japan despite what Council on Foreign Relations and Heritage analysts characterised as a warm relationship between the US president and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“A Japanese reporter is likely to ask about Okinawa and those difficulties and this is not a lot an administration that has paid a lot of attention to the difficult relations between the residents of Japan and the US military forces on the ground,” Sheila Smith, CFR’s senior fellow for Japan studies, said on the same call.

“There’s lots of things that could get the local sensitivities riled up and then in reaction Trump might react with his Twitter impulse.”

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About half of the 50,000 US troops in Japan are stationed on the island of Okinawa. Resentment toward the US military presence intensified after the arrest last year of a former Marine for the murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman.

“There is also a meeting with the Japanese Emperor” Akihito, Smith said. “You may recall when President [Barack] Obama first went to Japan, there was a photograph of that president bowing to the Emperor, which drew some controversy in the United States. There will be lots of moments when we’ll be holding our breath just a little bit.”

On the trade front, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may need to parry Trump’s desire to engage in talks around a bilateral free-trade agreement in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, said Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Centre.

The Japanese “have no interest in doing a bilateral FTA with the United States, and for good reasons really,” Lohman said, speaking at a media round table in Washington.

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“One is, they made some trade-offs during the course of TPP that are not palatable in the context of a bilateral agreement. That carries different political connotations and not something that they want to entertain.

“The other issue is that you have to wonder about the US steadfastness of these agreements we’ve pulled out of TPP after eight or nine years of negotiations,” Lohman added. “If I’m a foreign trading partner, I’ve got to wonder, well, am I going to work on this for eight years, and they come back, and they’re going to pull out of it? I’m not sure we’re reliable as a negotiating partner.”

Tensions over trade with South Korea are even more prominent, particularly around Trump’s dissatisfaction with the five-year-old US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), hammered out by Trump’s predecessor Obama.

“Trump has been very very critical of the KORUS FTA,” the Heritage Foundation’s Klingner said. “Either he’s threatening to throw it out or strongly modify it. South Korea is reluctant to do so.”

The US Chamber of Commerce warned its members in September that it had received reports that the Trump administration could notify South Korea of its intent to withdraw from KORUS at any time.