Can Trump see beyond North Korea and focus on a broader Asia strategy?
Andrew Hammond says the US president faces not only tough negotiations on his approach to North Korea during his Asia tour, but also a need to demonstrate concern in the broader region
This weekend in Japan, Donald Trump kicked off a landmark 12-day trip to Asia warning that “no dictator, no regime ... should underestimate American resolve” in a veiled reference to North Korea. While that hermit communist regime will dominate the first phase of the visit, in Japan, South Korea and China, Trump is also due to outline his wider Asia-Pacific policy for the first time as an alternative to Barack Obama’s regional “pivot”.
The Obama administration pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade and investment deal to underline its regional commitment, partly to push back at China’s growing power and presence, a concern for some allies in Asia. But the Trump team pulled out of the TPP, with no replacement initiatives thus far.
A key goal of Trump’s trip, the longest to Asia by any US president since the early 1990s, is to dispel perceptions that he has little interest in the area. He will seek to articulate his political, security and economic ambitions for the region in a speech anticipated in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Beyond allies like South Korea and Japan, the danger is that he may appear so focused on North Korea that he shows little affinity for the broader range of issues in the region, from South China Sea tensions to regional counterterrorism. This could fuel concerns in some countries that agendas are not aligned and that the administration cares little for them.
‘Oppose war, negotiate peace’: thousands of South Koreans protest ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit
Trump therefore faces a diplomatic balancing act, especially when the goal is getting Japan, South Korea and – especially – China on board the US approach towards tightening the screws on North Korea. This is a US priority because, as highlighted by CIA director Mike Pompeo last month, Pyongyang is perhaps months from possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is closely aligned with Trump but Seoul and Beijing are tougher audiences. South Korean President Moon Jae-in strongly opposes the use of military force, while Trump has declared more dialogue “a dead end”.
The challenge is even greater in China and it is reported that the White House is now conducting a review of policy towards Beijing. US-China disagreements over North Korea have softened after Beijing, which accounts for 90 per cent of its neighbour’s foreign trade, tightened sanctions. Yet, China still has key differences with the US; President Xi Jinping does not want to push Kim Jong-un’s regime so hard that it is destabilised. From his vantage point, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and the outside possibility of regime collapse.
Beijing fears that if the communist regime falls, it could undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China, too. It also worries that the collapse could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees and the possible emergence of a pro-US successor state.
Yet Washington senses there may be a window to bring itself and Beijing closer together. Trump will therefore probe whether China may jettison more of its reservations about squeezing its neighbour.
He will make clear in Beijing the stakes are growing more severe. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and some 15 missile launches this year offer evidence that it is moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the US mainland on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
With the United States and its territories, including Guam, looking increasingly vulnerable, what Beijing fears, especially with more potential provocations from Pyongyang on the horizon, is that Trump is thinking much more seriously about a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Trump has asserted for instance that the regime “is behaving in a very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it ... and probably dealt with rapidly”.
Of course, Trump has threatened force before. But scenarios range from actions like a naval blockade to enforcing sanctions – including interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korean weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income, through to a potential new round of peace talks at the dovish end.
Overall, Trump faces a tricky task in balancing his desire to focus on Korea while showing interest in the wider Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps his key test will come in Beijing, where he will seek to align positions more closely on Pyongyang, given the possibility that he could soon face his first major foreign policy crisis.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics