Thu, Nov 02, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Trump faces test in first Asia trip

By Andrew Hammond

US President Donald Trump is making final preparations for his landmark 12-day trip to Asia that begins on Sunday and includes stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

While North Korea will dominate the first part of the trip, Trump is also being billed to outline his wider Asia policy for the first time with an alternative vision of former US president Barack Obama’s regional “pivot.”

The Obama administration pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to underline its regional commitment, partly to push back on China’s growing power and presence, which is a concern for some Asian allies. However, the Trump team pulled out of that accord with no replacement initiatives so far.

A key goal of the trip for Trump is therefore to dispel perceptions that he has little interest in this strategically important area of the globe.

Beyond US allies, such as South Korea and Japan, the danger is that the US president and his team might appear on the tour so overwhelmingly focused on North Korea — crucial as that issue is to resolve — that he shows little affinity for the broader range of issues in the regional dialogue, from South China Sea tensions to regional counterterrorism and trade.

This could fuel concerns in some countries that agendas are not aligned and that the US administration cares little for them, especially after Trump cut short his visit by canceling his attendance at an ASEAN summit in the Philippines.

Trump therefore faces a diplomatic balancing act, especially in the first part of his trip, where the overriding goal is getting Japan, South Korea — and especially China — on board the US approach toward tightening the screws on North Korea.

The reason why this is a US super-priority was highlighted by CIA Director Mike Pompeo last week, when he said that Pyongyang is perhaps only months away from possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland, an avowed red line for the US president.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is closely aligned to Trump, having just received a renewed electoral mandate on the back of tough talk against Pyongyang, Seoul and Beijing are tougher audiences.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in strongly opposes use of military force on the Korean Peninsula, while Trump has declared “more dialogue a dead end” and that Moon’s approach is tantamount to “appeasement.”

However, the challenge is greater in China and it is reported that the White House is now conducting a root-and-branch review of policy toward Beijing. To be sure, US-China disagreements over North Korea have softened with Beijing — which accounts for about 90 percent of its neighbor’s foreign trade — tightening sanctions.

Yet, China still has key differences with the US. A key reason for this is that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilized. From his vantage point, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and/or the outside possibility of the regime’s collapse.

Beijing fears that if the North’s communist regime falls, it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, too. In addition, it worries that the collapse of order in Pyongyang could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor state.

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