Starting on Friday, President Donald Trump will be visiting several Asian countries until November 14 — he’ll be stopping in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and The Philippines. In typical Trump fashion, the White House press briefing on the trip highlighted the trip as being the biggest deal ever, as though promoting a show destined for the Highest Ratings Ever.
According to senior administration officials on a press call on Tuesday:
- The trip will be “the longest trip to the region by any president in the last 25 years.”
- “No president has visited more countries on the region on any one trip since President George W. Bush in October 2003.”
- The tour will be “an extension of the president’s extensive diplomatic engagement” with the region (the press call also highlighted that Trump had been on 43 phone calls with leaders from the region, including countries he will not be visiting on this trip).
But what will President Trump actually be able to accomplish on this visit? Will he be able to “underscore his commitment to longstanding U.S. alliances and partnerships and reaffirm U.S. leadership in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” as administration officials are touting.
Trump will no doubt be received with all the appropriate pomp by dignitaries at high profile events — he’ll attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam and some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit meetings the Philippines. And, of course, he will be playing a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But there are signs that maybe not everyone is thrilled he’ll be visiting. The North Korean state-run news agency KCNA on Tuesday dismissed the significance of Trump’s visit, calling him a “master of invective” who is “incurably mentally deranged,” according to the South China Morning Post.
A Monday op-ed in South Korea’s The Korea Times figured that while Trump will be “showered with uncommon hospitality” on his visit there, he is also seen, potentially, as a “U.S. president who is seen as a liability to world peace.” While placing the blame on North Korea for the security tensions in the region, the piece pointed out that, “The U.S. under Trump’s helm is increasingly seen not as a responsible adult superpower that assures the world of peace, but rather one that appears to be trying to find a ‘justifiable’ way to start a war with North Korea,” and that Japan and South Korea are “worried about the U.S. carrying out a preemptive strike without consulting them first.”
Harry Krejsa, Bacevich Fellow and Asia security expert at the Center for a New American Security, said it’s unlikely that Trump will come back with “any huge deliverables” from meetings during his upcoming trip.
“And I don’t think this is a huge goal on this trip anyway,” he said, adding that it’s more about showing an “ongoing commitment to Asia Pacific” — which has been “a hard case to make” for Trump. So even if the public’s view of Trump in the region might not be favorable, this “diplomatic cultivation,” as Krejsa put it, is pretty important to Asian leaders. Specifically, Trump needs to make sure that he walks away with South Korean President Moon Jae-in feeling that they’re “on the same page” when it comes to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Taekyoon Kim, Fulbright scholar at the Wilson Center, told ThinkProgress that as far as Seoul is concerned, what’s important is “diplomatic efforts for the negotiation with North Korea are continuously undertaken in order to give a chance to North Korea for the exit from this terrible deadlock.”
Kim, who is also associate professor of International Development at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University in South Korea, said that while it’s true that Trump’s “image in South Korea is quite negative due to his provocative tweets and his aggressive approach to South Korea such as trade issues,” his visit there, even though it excludes the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bordering North Korea, is nonetheless important. “…His physical presence in East Asia, particularly in the Korean Peninsula, [is] a very strong signal to North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un — if he moves any further step towards nuclear tests, US can intervene with military attacks,” Kim told ThinkProgress over email.
But, he added, if Trump insists on a “very strong and arrogant intervention into South Korean leadership” by forging ahead on North Korea without consulting Seoul first, “the alliance management between US and South Korea will be at rocky roads.”
According to Reuters, direct diplomatic negotiations between the United States and North Korea (despite Trump’s militaristic rhetoric) are underway. Still, Kim worries that, “All in all, Trump’s visit can be characterized as a mixed bag of military signals of possible attack and diplomatic gestures for negotiation.”
While North Korea will no doubt be the top agenda items at many of the president’s meetings, it’s far from the only one. In the Philippines, said Krejsa, how Trump handles President Rodrigo Duterte and “whether he comes away with granting an implicit legitimacy to Duterte’s extrajudicial killings” in the strongman’s “war on drugs” that have left thousands dead. Trump has in the past lauded Duterte’s methods — which have slammed by rights groups around the world — and faced criticism domestically for doing so.
“People are eager to see which side of the U.S. stance on the killings comes out on this,” said Krejsa.
Although there’s less media focus on the visit to Vietnam, Kresja says that the strengthening of U.S. relations with the country has been “one of the most surprising and important developments in Asian politics in the last decade and he’s [Trump] is wise to his foot on the gas with that trend.” In other words, all Trump has to do is maintain an already-strong relationship.
Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, told ThinkProgress that without former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to draw up a road map for him, Trump is operating at a disadvantage. Trump, he said, is “in the best of times, not a comprehensive strategic thinker,” and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will likely be “very well prepared and ready to snow him with ritual and ceremony.” This, said Schell will be “quite effective.”
“Trump is very easily impressed by outer surfaces and the trappings of luxury and pomp and ceremony,” said Schell. This means that the odds of Trump being able to achieve his goals in China — which, according to the White House, are to “rebalance US-China economic relations” and get China to “stop predatory trade and investment practices” — are slim. Trump’s disruptive and unpredictable behavior might be able to “shift the paradigm with China,” said Schell, but he’s not very hopeful that under Trump, the United States will be able to use this shift, combined with common interests (the nuclear question in North Korea, terrorism, pandemics, etc.) so while the opportunities are there to, Schell thinks the odds of the relationship fundamentally changing are “quite unlikely.”
Xi, said Schell, is “very conservative, distrustful and even paranoid — and Trump is not very trustworthy and very unpredictable and very unreliable.”
Given the storms facing Trump domestically — from tax reform to this week’s indictment of his former advisers Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos — Schell said that Trump is “leaving America at a very difficult time.”
“He hasn’t had very many successes. He’s going to be desperate for a win in Asia, which means he may be inclined to give away the store just to get a deal, the way he seems to have been inclined to do with health care and the tax bill — just ‘give me something to sign,'” said Schell.
“This is where Xi could eat him alive.”