By Ishaan Tharoor / The Washington Post
Set aside the various political battles convulsing Washington and the grim fallout of the terrorism attack in New York City. Starting this weekend, President Donald Trump will, in theory, put domestic issues on the back burner as he embarks upon an important series of state visits in Asia.
Trump’s tour will begin in Japan with a golf outing with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday, followed by meetings in Tokyo and then further stops in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. It will be the longest trip taken by any U.S. president since George H.W. Bush traveled through Asia in 1991 — and ended the journey by vomiting in the Japanese prime minister’s lap during dinner. Officials in the White House are surely hoping for no such events this time.
In each country, Trump will have a fair amount of work to do. In Vietnam and the Philippines, he’ll attend two key regional summits, where America’s many allies in the region are hoping to hear the reassuring words of a traditional American president, rather than Trump’s campaign-trail barking, questioning Washington’s long-standing overseas commitments.
Trump’s advisers have outlined three guiding themes to the trip: a tough line on North Korea’s nuclear threat; a commitment to an “open and free” Indo-Pacific region (or rather, a check on Chinese maritime pushiness); and a reckoning with Asian partners over what Trump sees as unfair trade deficits. Meanwhile, here’s what the world is wondering about Trump’s journey:
Is Trump going to embarrass himself and offend others?
Given Trump’s propensity for abrasive tweets and unscripted rants, the first concern for some of his protocol team would be the risk of causing offense in a part of the world attuned to etiquette and decorum. President Barack Obama once courted controversy by merely chewing gum while arriving at a 2014 summit in Beijing. Trump’s planned audience with Japan’s emperor may come under particular scrutiny.
“The president will use whatever language he wants to use,” said national security adviser H.R. McMaster at a Thursday press briefing when asked whether Trump would curb his sometimes incendiary rhetoric.
Trump seems to be at least aware of such worries. “I don’t want to embarrass anybody four days before I land in China,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting this weekend, after he again complained about “bad” trade deals with certain countries.
Can Trump translate good personal relationships into policy wins?
Trump has hosted Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and boasted of cultivating a good rapport with both leaders. But it remains to be seen whether such bonhomie can pay dividends on a grander scale.
In Japan, Trump has a much easier mission. Abe, a notably hawkish nationalist, is happy with Trump’s eagerness to sell more arms to American allies in the region. Trump’s arrival will be preceded by his daughter Ivanka’s star turn Friday, when she’ll address the Japanese government’s “World Assembly of Women” conference.
In China, though, Trump may face a more complicated showdown. The American president is expected to lean heavily on his Chinese counterpart to get Beijing to economically and politically isolate North Korea, while he’s also likely to clash with Xi over their differences on trade.
“I think the sense that one gets is that privately, most likely … [Trump] will effectively tell Xi Jinping, ‘I’m coming after you on trade especially,’ ” said Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And I think the Chinese, because of that concern, are very eager to use the summit meeting to try to press the reset button on the relationship between the two presidents.”
What can Trump really achieve on North Korea?
Pyongyang’s nuclear threat will loom over most of Trump’s deliberations in East Asia. But the question remains: What will he actually do about it? So far, despite Trump’s saber-rattling tweets, U.S. actions have been more or less a continuation of Obama-era policies — that is, pursuing a tough regime of international sanctions that may compel the North Koreans to come to the table.
But any diplomatic effort will require a united front with a host of countries with varying interests. Trump’s main job may be to figure out what the next steps might be.
“Beyond pushing China to implement the sanctions already in place and perhaps getting them to introduce a few more, one option would be to bring Korea, Japan, and Russia back into the conversation,” Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests. “In this case, five heads may well be better than two.”
Other analysts are more skeptical. Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institute thinks that North Koreans will never surrender their nuclear weapons program and, after successive presidents have failed to stop Pyogyang’s nuclear buildup, that this White House needs to learn how to live with that.
“What the president should do is simple, if radical,” Auslin wrote this year. “He should admit the failure of America’s North Korea policy since the 1990s and abandon the fantasy of ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.’ Instead, he should acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear weapons-capable state, and that the United States will treat it as such. That means revamping U.S. policy toward explicit containment and deterrence of a nuclear North Korea.”
How will Trump articulate America’s role in Asia?
Perhaps the biggest question looming over Trump’s trip is what role the “America First” president will play not only in bilateral meetings with leaders such as Abe and Xi, but at regional summits such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam and the ASEAN meetings in the Philippines. Trump and a coterie of his advisers have lambasted the multilateralism pursued by American presidents and questioned the United States’ commitment to the prevailing order, underwritten by decades of U.S. military might, that brought half a century of relative stability and prosperity to East Asia. Trump can either assuage Asian partners that he’s sticking to the long-established script, or take a radical turn.
His recent praise for the political successes of both the Chinese president and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seem to confirm something else: the absence of any real interest on his part in even rhetorically defending human rights and democracy on the global stage.