Understanding Trump's Asia approach
Oct. 31, 2017
If former President Barack Obama's "Pivot to Asia" showed his administration's interest in the region, his successor Donald Trump's "America First" policy is indicative of a more domestic focus.
What Trump's stance on Asia will be has been a point of interest since he took office. Starting this weekend, he will embark on his first trip to the region.
He will kick off his tour with a visit to Japan on November 5th. He will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is stressing the need to increase pressure on North Korea. Security and trade issues are likely to be on the agenda.
Trump will then travel to South Korea, where he will meet with President Moon Jae-in on November 7th.
The following day, Trump will visit China, where he's expected to hold talks with President Xi Jinping.
He will then travel to Vietnam and participate in the APEC leaders' meeting.
His trip wraps up in the Philippines, where a US-ASEAN summit will be held.
With tension rising on the Korean peninsula and China spreading its influence, all eyes are on Trump's approach to Asia.
Newsroom Tokyo's Hideki Nakayama sat down with American political scientist Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, to talk about the trip.
Nakayama: Trump is coming to East Asia for the first time as President. What is his objective in coming to the countries in the region?
Bremmer: The top priority right now is North Korea. He's very focused on it. It has driven a closer Japan relationship, it helped Abe win. It has also facilitated some cooperation with China but probably not lasting. So clearly that's going to make big headlines.
North Korea has not made any new military provocations since last month. But the country's foreign minister has hinted at a possibility of testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, the US has increased pressure on Pyongyang. The US Navy's 7th Fleet, which handles the North Korea situation, now has 3 aircraft carriers under its command.
Bremmer: I don't see the United States engaged in a preemptive military strike against North Korea. I think that would be very, very, not only unwise, but quite surprising. But we have to understand, that if you're North Korea, and you think there's even a 1% chance that Trump might engage in a military strike against you, then it really is incumbent upon you to publicly display a sufficiently adequate deterrent capability against the United States. So the idea that the North Koreans aren't prepared to talk to the Americans until they have perfected publicly their ICBM capability, and perhaps tested an in-air hydrogen bomb, I think is rational. If we want any chance of a diplomatic solution, we probably have to wait for the North Koreans to feel more secure, but then we have to wait for the Americans to recognize reality.
The Abe administration sides with the US on pressuring North Korea rather than having dialogue. But Bremmer says Abe should think more carefully about this approach.
Bremmer: I think it's not healthy or helpful for the Japanese to publicly say "yeah, yeah, Trump is right", that diplomacy is useless. I think that it is the role of the adults around Trump, not to just say yes to him all the time, but to speak truth to power, and to keep the policies balanced, and I think it should also be the role of America's best friends around the world to do the same thing. And I think that Angela Merkel in Germany is doing that, and I think that Trudeau in Canada is doing that, Macron in France is doing that, and, respectfully, I think Abe in Japan is not doing that, and I think that makes the North Korea situation a little more risky.
Hideki Nakayama: What about China? They're not really going help us solve the North Korean issue right?
Bremmer: Well, I think that they are helping, in the sense that they don't like North Korea's military development. They certainly don't like their cyber development and their use of cyber to attack countries all over the world, including China. But the Chinese government doesn't want North Korea to collapse, and the Chinese government doesn't want to push North Korea so hard that they escalate. That's mostly because China's right there. I would think that Japan should agree with that. The United States agrees less. Let's be very clear that Trump's North Korea policy is an America first policy. It is not a Japan first policy, not a China first policy. And the Chinese and the Japanese should understand that.
China is becoming increasingly assertive in the region. At the Chinese Communist Party's National Congress, Xi vowed to build a great, modernized socialist country by the middle of this century.
Bremmer: I think that Trump is a gift for the Chinese, as long as he doesn't break anything. In other words, Trump's America first policies in the world create a lot of space for the Chinese to operate, make the One Belt, One Road initiative more robust, because countries see that that's the only game in town, that there isn't really an American alternative that you want to believe in. I think that that is an advantage. And then finally Xi Jinping publicly says, "Ok, we want to be a global superpower". Now, I don't think he would have done that if Trump wasn't president.
Bremmer predicts that if friction were to emerge in US-China relations, it would likely be on economic issues, rather than on the military or diplomatic fronts.
Bremmer: On trade, Trump has been much more assertive, much more interested in promoting a policy of economic nationalism, much more America first. And here the potential for significant tensions between the U.S. and China, I think, is very real. The U.S. feels like the Chinese are taking advantage, they feel like they're stealing, ripping the American companies off, intellectual property, all this kind of thing, and they don't have the rule of law, they're promoting their own companies. Fundamentally, all of this is sort of unacceptable for most of the Trump administration. All feel like we need a more assertive policy against the Chinese, so I do think that will happen but probably won't happen on this trip.
As Bremmer points out, a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue is unlikely to come anytime soon. Nonetheless, Trump's visit is crucial to setting the course of the region's most pressing issue.
Asian countries will also be watching closely to understand Trump's overall approach in the region, as China rushes in to fill the leadership vacuum left by his "America First" policy.