Can Trump secure America’s place in Asia on his trip to the region?
Tom Plate says each stop on the tour – Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines – will present different challenges for a US president who must try to prioritise America’s national interests in what is now the world’s most important region, politically and economically
Despite not having before his all-seeing eyes the example of Donald Trump, the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal came to the conclusion that, “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room”. Next week, our most un-still American is to vacate his White House to call on geopolitical rooms in Asia: Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. This may not prove an easy trip, even if Trump were the most qualified US president ever.
Suddenly, it’s all action in Asia: the Japanese are still tallying up the margins and implications of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s general election triumph. The Chinese are epically engrossed in their party congress whose consensus is the crowning of Xi Jinping as the heir to Deng Xiaoping-ism and anointing his vision as The (only) Way. The South Koreans are praying northward that another nuclear-test shoe doesn’t drop. The Vietnamese, seeking to engage others in a pushback against Beijing’s possessiveness over seas nearby, will all but beg Trump to artfully shape a deal; and in Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte will try to enlist our president in his verbal war on human-rights groups, not to mention his shooting war against drug gangs. Each of these governments present roomfuls of challenge to a post-Obama America needing prioritisation of its national interests in the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing visit is central to Trump’s Asia tour, but diplomacy dictates Japan, South Korea must come first
Air Force One’s first touchdown on the tour is in Hawaii, which offers one special strategic view: from the headquarters of the US Pacific Command. Its military, perched 200 metres above Pearl Harbour, faces out towards the 52 per cent of the Earth’s surface that is the command’s Pentagon remit. Its well-educated officers will provide Trump with every reason to remain engaged in Asia militarily. No one in the room will make the case for lowering the US profile. Will that rub up against Trump’s expressed inclination towards an America-First, neo-George-Washington edginess about foreign entanglement?
The first Asian touchdown will be Japan, once a wartime enemy, now an ally. Abe, so brilliant in calling for a snap election, has also been brilliant in romancing Trump. Proud Japanese diplomats contend that Abe has either met or talked over the phone with Trump more than any other Asian leader – starting with the congratulatory call on November 10 last year from Tokyo and including, recently, an October 4 phone call ostensibly to express his condolences over the Las Vegas tragedy but also to slip in thoughts on the North Korean build-up. It is expected that Trump will meet family members of North Korean abductees to pressure North Korea “to resolve this issue once and for all”, in the words of one long-frustrated Japanese diplomat.
Seoul gets the next Air Force One honour. There, Trump will meet a deeply conflicted Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea. Moon is known to accept that if the US feels its territory has come under “imminent threat”, South Korean concerns would scarcely make it into Trump’s decision room. Of course, his nation retains a pre-eminent role is monitoring and perhaps even alleviating the human crisis up north. “On this,” explains long-time Korean peninsula expert Spencer Kim, of the Pacific Century Institute, “the South has a clear role. The question is how to get things started.” And how to convince grumpy Trump that heartfelt humanitarianism is not creeping pacifism.
Air Force One then lands in Beijing, in the wake of the Communist Party congress. “Trump‘s visit to China and Republic of Korea will be of crucial importance,” explains a veteran Japanese diplomat. “On the one hand, we do need China’s cooperation to rein in North Korea. On the other, Xi will emerge an even stronger leader. He will reign over the ‘party state’ system that in essence will not tolerate any challenge to the supremacy of the Communist Party. We must expect China under a second-term Xi to be more than ever self-assertive.”
Watch: Government exhibition ties China’s achievements to Xi Jinping
One thing Xi should ask of Trump is to offer Kim Jong-un a peace treaty, multilateral security guarantees and an economic opening if he agrees not to test more nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. In return, Xi should promise that, if Kim refuses, China will be very upset.
Vietnam – next on Trump’s itinerary – may have a nervous breakdown if Trump and Xi get along too well. President Tran Dai Quang will try to sell Trump on a policy towards China that “implicitly rejects the notion that the South China Sea is China’s national backyard”, as one Vietnamese diplomat puts it, while not playing into Beijing’s hands by making it a “Vietnam versus China” dust-up by “squarely putting the issue into a broader regional and even international context”. Quang’s government is known to sympathise with the pressure Trump is under to draw on China’s influence with Pyongyang – but hopes it won’t give away the regional maritime store. In this regard, Hanoi will find it difficult to lure Trump away from believing that Xi can do more for him than Quang.
The last stop is Manila, a late addition. Given Duterte’s “pumping iron” style, Trump should find this stop the easiest to fathom – simple slogans, macho poses, deep thought avoided. But perhaps after the whirlwind he would have just gone through, a kind of diplomatic eye candy might just be what the spin doctors ordered.
Trump gets massive media criticism, admittedly much of it deserved. A few verbal hiccups and diplomatic pratfalls on the Asian swing are all but unavoidable. Even so, the responsible media must start downplaying the obvious personality flaws. Asia, by far, is now the most important economic and political region on Earth. He’s still the president, until he’s not.
Columnist Tom Plate is the founder of Asia Media International at Loyola Marymount University and author of the new book, Yo-Yo Diplomacy